When the buzzer finally sounded, Travis Releford popped his blue jersey and turned toward the Kansas State student section. Releford smiled, his sweaty palms holding out the stitched “KANSAS” on his chest. Moments later, Elijah Johnson stopped to blow a couple of kisses toward the same direction. They were brief moments, but they signaled what has become so true here at Bramlage Coliseum.
Maybe Kansas doesn’t dominate this place as it once did. But on most nights, when the two old rivals get together in Manhattan, the Jayhawks usually find a way to own the day.
“That goodbye kiss felt good,” Johnson said. “It felt great to know that I came in here and won three of four. There’s a lot going on in my mind.”
No. 3 Kansas had edged No. 11 Kansas State 59-55 on Tuesday night, the latest chapter from a longstanding and still lopsided rivalry. KU, which has won 23 of 25 at Bramlage Coliseum and 45 of 48 overall in the series, improved to 17-1 overall and took sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 5-0 start. No. 11 Kansas State dropped to 15-3, 4-1.
Hours earlier, the Jayhawks arrived in the visitor’s locker room with a collective goal. They stood as a group, senior Kevin Young said, preparing for the night ahead.
“When we get here,” Young said, “We say: ‘we just gotta have a party in the other team’s locker room.’ ”
K-State had a chance in the final moments, cutting the lead to 56-53 on a layup from Shane Southwell with 24 seconds left. But sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe made some clutch free throws as the defense salted the game away in the final seconds.
And by late on Tuesday night, the party was on. Jim Wooldridge. Frank Martin. Bruce Weber. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who’s coaching K-State.
Releford shut down K-State leading scorer Rodney McGruder, holding him to 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting. The Jayhawks held K-State to 35.1 percent shooting. And when KU needed offense down the stretch, freshman Ben McLemore (11 points) and senior Jeff Withey (11 points) found a way to make plays.
Kansas coach Bill Self agreed that it wasn’t very artistic. And despite a 16-game winning streak, the Jayhawks have lived messy over the last month. The offensive struggles have been notable, but certainly not paralyzing. And as Self said on Tuesday night, this way of winning — the scratching, the clawing, the toughness — was probably always going to be this KU team’s formula.
“I knew we’d have to (win games like this),” Self said. “The thing about it is, we’re not great offensively. When you look at our individual pieces, it’s not a great offensive team. But when the ball moves … we can look great at times.”
Kansas, which led 31-27 at halftime, took partial control in the first 10 minutes of the second half, holding onto a one- or two-possession lead before McLemore converted a put-back that stretched the lead to 48-41 with under nine minutes left. McLemore knocked down two more jumpers in the next two possessions as KU pushed the lead to 53-43.
But K-State’s Southwell responded by making consecutive three-pointers, shaving the lead to 54-49 with under four minutes to play. K-State coach Bruce Weber then burned his final timeout, before Withey hit a tough jump hook in the lane.
Self called Withey’s basket the biggest play of the game. For Self, this was another measure of toughness, his team making plays that count in the most hostile of environments.
“My big belief,” Self said, “is you gotta learn how to win games in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. You’ve got to. And we’ve been able to accomplish that.”
This was the same old end for another Sunflower Showdown. The Bramlage Coliseum bleachers were packed to the brim, oozing with the accustomed blend of anger and enthusiasm. And even though K-State victories in Manhattan have been about as rare Royal Weddings, recent history suggested that K-State had more than a puncher’s chance.
Sometime this week, that thought crossed Johnson’s mind. He’d been here three times — and even lost once — and he wasn’t ready to leave here with another blemish.
“I’m gonna miss it,” Johnson said, walking up the tunnel toward the team bus. “As crazy and weird as this may sound, I’m gonna miss K-State.”