All week, Bill Self talked about having a tight huddle. This would be a test, he said. A real test.
No. 9 Kansas was entering hostile territory for the first time. They were playing a ranked squad, a tough and physical squad. And maybe — just maybe — Self could learn something about his squad.
After a 74-66 victory over No. 7 Ohio State on Saturday afternoon inside Value Center Arena, Self may have learned that the huddle was tight enough. The Jayhawks took Ohio State’s best shot in the first half, shook off the body blows, and buried the Buckeyes with a smothering defensive performance.
During a nearly 16-minute stretch in the second half, the Jayhawks held the Buckeyes to just two field goals from the field – both layups inside from forward Amir Williams. After Ohio State had taken KU out of its comfort zone with some devastating pressure in the first half, the Jayhawks returned the favor in the second.
There were no easy baskets for Ohio State, no easy paths to the rim. For 20 minutes, the Jayhawks systematically put the clamps on Buckeyes’ offense.
The Jayhawks, who improved to 10-1, finally claimed a signature victory. And for the third time in more than 12 months, the Jayhawks had Ohio State’s number. Last year’s victory at Allen Fieldhouse? The subsequent nail-biter at the Final Four in New Orleans? This was mere validation.
And the dagger might have come from freshman guard Ben McLemore.
Holding onto a 60-52 lead with more than five minutes left, Kansas ran an in-bounds lob play to McLemore that ended with a thunderous dunk. Minutes earlier, the Jayhawks had run a similar play that resulted in a three-point play for McLemore. But this time, Ohio State made no adjustment. This was Kansas simply throwing the ball up toward the ceiling, and KU’s most athletic player doing the rest.
McLemore finished with a team-high 22 points and six rebounds. Senior center Jeff Withey had 10 points and 10 rebounds while leading the Jayhawks’ defensive push in the second half.
And when Elijah Johnson made two free throws a minute later, the Jayhawks had taken a 64-52 lead.
Kansas had stretched the lead to 56-50 on a three-pointer from Travis Releford with under 10 minutes to go in the game. It completed a quick 7-2 run that helped the Jayhawks take some semblance of control.
But for Kansas, the game might have been won in the first half.
In its first true road game of the season, Kansas weathered an Ohio State storm in the first half and still managed to take a 37-35 lead into the locker room.
After the Jayhawks took a 23-17 lead on a three-pointer from sophomore Naadir Tharpe, Ohio State rolled off 14 straight points as the Value City Arena came to life. The Buckeyes did it with defensive pressure. And the Jayhawks didn’t respond well to the loud and hostile conditions.
A flood of turnovers turned Ohio State loose in transition. The Buckeyes finished the half with 13 points off turnovers. And sophomore guard Shannon Scott came off the bench to lead the Buckeyes with 10 first-half points. Self needed to use two timeouts to calm his squad. And after falling behind 31-23, senior forward Kevin Young finally broke the long drought with a three-point play on a two-handed dunk.
Still, Kansas trailed by 34-32 in the final minutes of the half before McLemore knocked down a three-pointer and finished an athletic dunk in transition. McLemore led the Jayhawks with 13 points in the first half on five-of-nine shooting. Withey had six points and seven rebounds. Kansas finished the half with 11 turnovers.
Before Ohio State’s run, Kansas had started strong. McLemore hit a jumper that gave Kansas an 18-12 lead with just more than 12 minutes left in the half.