The game was defense, hustle and grit. The kind of game Bill Self loves, when he wins it.
Kansas did, 59-53 over Kansas State on Monday night.
“I told our guys before the game, execution isn’t going to win this game at all,” Self said. “It’s going to be who goes after the ball with two hands, who gets 70 percent of the 50-50 balls. That’s how you win how games like this.”
Oh, and big time players step up. Two did in a big way for the fourth-ranked Jayhawks (21-5, 11-2 Big 12). One Kansas has come to depend on greatly, another who has played like a gift over the past few weeks.
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Tyshawn Taylor had 20 points and five assists and hit the big shots that stopped a Jayhawk slump and started one for Kansas State.
Then there’s center Jeff Withey. Four games ago, the 7-footer was held scoreless by Missouri. Since then, he’s played like an All-American and his latest performance — 18 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocked shots — came into the roughest of encounters.
Withey greeted the media with scratches on his body. He fell to the floor hard late in the game in a collision with teammate Thomas Robinson.
But he finished the scrum, logging a season-best 36 minutes, and his final block helped Kansas keep a safe distance.
“They’re a physical team,” Withey said. “It was a physical game. I got hit in the face a couple of times.”
A few weeks ago, his teammates were getting on Withey’s case, demanding more toughness. And he’s delivered. There was the 25-point effort at Baylor, the 18 points and 20 rebounds against Oklahoma State and now Monday’s near triple-double.
Withey’s biggest block came when he swatted away an Angel Rodriguez drive with the Jayhawks nursing a 55-51 lead.
The game was that close because Taylor had missed the front of two one-and-ones. In the final 63 seconds.
But Kansas played great defense on K-State’s possessions after the misses. In the final minute, Will Spradling missed a three-pointer and a shot near the basket when he caught a pass and tried to score before coming down. And the Withey block.
Taylor also was called for traveling in that sequence, and if Kansas fans had flashbacks to the Missouri loss, when the Jayhawks blew and eight-point lead in the final three minutes, Taylor did as well.
“It crossed my mind a few times,” Taylor said. “I was trying not to think about it, but there were two minutes left and we were up by six, and it was like, ‘Here we go.’
“Everything isn’t going to be pretty. We’re not going to beat all teams by 20 or 30 points. So we have to be able to fight these battles, and I think we did a good job today.”
A year ago, Taylor shouldered plenty of blame for the Kansas loss at Bramlage after the man he was guarding, Jacob Pullen, went for 38.
But Monday, Taylor came up huge. He hit two three-pointers in a three-possessions stretch after the Jayhawks, who led by 10 at halftime, had fallen behind 37-36. It was part of an 11-0 Kansas run, which was helped on the defensive end by a triangle-and-two scheme. K-State went scoreless for the next six minutes.
Kansas State (17-8, 6-7) got 20 points from a rejuvenated Jamar Samuels, and the Wildcats outrebounded Kansas 45-39 after getting stomped on the boards 50-26 at Lawrence.
There wasn’t enough left in the Kansas State tank. The Jayhawks made their final four free throws — two by Thomas Robinson and two by Conner Teahan — to put away their Sunflower State rival