Late Monday night, as the whistles continued to blow, and Kansas and West Virginia stutter-stopped to an uneven conclusion, Travis Releford found himself open for a corner three-pointer.
The night had dragged on, pushing toward midnight on the East Coast, and Kansas had fought off West Virginia for the better part of the second half. Now, Ben McLemore had scored six straight points, and the Jayhawks led by six, and Releford slipped open one more time.
The release was pure and the shot rippled through the net, and maybe — just maybe — Kansas finally had enough breathing room to escape WVU Coliseum with an 18-game winning streak and its Big 12 lead intact. Was Monday’s 61-56 victory pretty? No. Satisfying? Yes.
“We’re gonna have bad games,” Releford said. “And out of all those bad games, we gotta win them. And the key to winning the Big 12 is winning on the road.
“So, ugly or not ”
They say there’s something a little different about the Coliseum, and Kansas learned as much Monday night. This, of course, was the first time the two schools had met as conference foes, so perhaps you can forgive the mixed messages in Morgantown. On one hand, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins had famously received a $25,000 incentive clause in his contract for any victory against Kansas. (Yes, the price for beating Bill Self doesn’t come cheap.) On the other hand, one of the biggest cheers of the night came during a second-half timeout, when a young West Virginia fan held up an “I still hate Pitt” sign — an ode to the Mountaineers’ old backyard rival in the Big East.
Conference realignment has done some funny things to Big 12 basketball. And this latest chapter was another example. Maybe in 10 years, we’ll look back at this as the beginning of a new-school rivalry. But for now, this much is clear: Whether it’s the Eastern time zone or the Central, the Jayhawks, 19-1 overall and 7-0 in the Big 12, have kept one Big 12 theme intact: They generally find a way to leave on top.
On Monday, Kansas made just 18 of 34 free throws and committed 16 turnovers. West Virginia’s bench outscored Kansas’ 30-5. And senior guard Elijah Johnson was limited to six points on four shots. And yet, Releford and senior center Jeff Withey, who both scored 15 points, combined to shoot 13 of 17 and led Kansas through the turbulent moments.
“It is frustrating,” Kansas Bill Self said. “I talked to the guys about it: ‘We gotta be better. There’s no question.’ We’re gonna have to learn some lessons through losing, or we’re gonna have to mature and hopefully we can learn them through escaping.
“And so far we haven’t learned them yet.”
West Virginia used a 10-4 run in the opening minutes of the second half to slice the lead to 42-40 on a Gary Browne steal and layup with 14:09 left. The layup was a near gift — Naadir Tharpe had delivered a telegraphed pass — and West Virginia kept the game tight until Releford’s big three-pointer.
It was partly the environment, partly Kansas’ own mistakes, and partly the fact McLemore picked up two early fouls. Still, West Virginia, 9-11 and 2-5, looked like a vintage Huggins squad as it turned the game into a 40-minute foul-fest.
“You look across America,” Self said. “There’s a lot of teams out there that would give anything to be 5-0 on the road hardly anybody in America’s done that. We shouldn’t make any excuses for winning games away from home.”
More than 12 hours earlier, Kansas had moved to No. 2 in The Associated Press poll and taken over No. 1 in USA Today/Coaches’ poll. Maybe Self, as he contended on Saturday, didn’t think this team would ever have a No. 1 next to its name. But on Monday night, in their first ever trip to Morgantown, the Jayhawks entered the WVU Coliseum as one of the nation’s top-ranked teams.
Even as Kansas played most of the first half without McLemore, who picked up two early fouls, the Jayhawks looked like a team that came to send a message. And the Mountaineers, frankly, looked lost.
The Jayhawks pushed the lead to 29-14 on a Releford layup in transition, and finally appeared ready to cruise in a road conference game. Not so fast.
West Virginia closed out the half on a 16-9 run, and Kansas had to rely on its defense for another night. That, in the end, has become this team’s trademark. Win ugly. Win with defense. Whatever. Just win.
“If you tell us before the season, if you tell us last night, if you tell us this afternoon,” Self said, “Hey, we’re gonna win by five in Morgantown; we’d say, ‘We’ll take that and go to the house.’ ”