Coach Bill Self put his four fingers up in the air late in the first half, electing to call a set that had just worked on the previous possession.
KU’s “four-up” play is typically run for leading scorer Perry Ellis — only this time, he was determined that he once again wasn’t going to take it for himself.
After setting a high ball screen for Frank Mason in No. 2 KU’s 72-63 victory over Kansas State on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum, Ellis received a pass, hesitated, and threw it right back to his teammate.
Mason took advantage of a K-State switch, driving right by 6-foot-10 forward Dean Wade for a layup in the midst of a 14-0 KU run.
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“What’d I tell you?” the typically softspoken Ellis screamed at Mason as he returned to the backcourt. “What’d I tell you?”
All year, Self has wanted the 5-11 Mason to make teams pay for these types of mistakes. The coach has wanted his talented point guard to attack big men when they try to guard him, though many times, Mason has backed off.
This time, with Ellis urging him on, Mason received the message.
“I’m a lot quicker than him,” Mason said of Wade.
After going through a midseason swoon, Mason appears to be re-emerging at the perfect time for KU. He posted a team-high 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting Saturday while also providing KU a first-half spark.
“For the most part, that was our best offense,” Self said, “having him go make plays.”
Mason’s tough stretch started with a home game against TCU last month, as he shot 33 percent or worse in four of five games.
Saturday, though, continued an uptick, as he’s had at least 14 points in each of his last four games with much improved shooting percentages.
“I think I’ll be better moving forward. This game helped me out,” Mason said. “I haven’t been my best in the past games, things like that, but somehow we’ve still been getting the wins.”
Mason was plenty happy in the game’s final moments. Following a K-State foul with 9.9 seconds left, the junior screamed, “Let’s go!” toward the rafters as KU wrapped up its first victory at Bramlage in three tries.
“There were a couple of us that hadn’t gotten a win here,” Mason said. “We kind of took that personal.”
KU (23-4, 11-3 Big 12) took a big step toward at least a share of its 12th straight Big 12 title, moving two games up in the conference standings with four to go following West Virginia’s 76-62 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday.
“We’re in decent position,” Mason said. “We’re not satisfied with where we’re at. We’re not satisfied with the team we are right now. We’re still getting better.”
KU had to play much of the second half without Ellis, its leading scorer. He exited the game with 12:02 left in the second half after getting injured under the basket, leaving the court with a towel pinned to his head to stop bleeding behind his right ear. Ellis returned at the 6:05 mark after getting 12 stitches, then left again with 1:19 remaining when he was scratched in the eye by teammate Wayne Selden.
Self said Ellis would see an eye specialist in Lawrence to learn more about the severity of the injury.
The Jayhawks, who led by as many as 17 in the second half, had their lead trimmed to three twice in the final minutes before Devonte’ Graham and Selden followed with jump shots.
Both teams came in with reason to be upset about their rival. K-State’s players talked publicly about being miffed with KU guard Brannen Greene, who put in a last-second dunk in the final seconds of the Jayhawks’ 77-59 victory on Feb. 3 in Lawrence.
Greene appeared to revel in the extra attention before the game, as he came out of the tunnel before any other KU player, picked up a basketball and began his shoot-around with a dunk similar to his previous one as K-State fans booed him.
KU, meanwhile, returned to the site of last year’s court storming when forward Jamari Traylor was bumped by a K-State student and Self was pinned briefly against the scorer’s table by the crowd.
Stephen Hurt and Barry Brown led K-State (15-12, 4-10) with 13 points each.
KU, which has had its road toughness questioned after three previous double-digit losses in Big 12 play, immediately answered a first-half K-State run. After Self called a timeout following two Wildcats’ steals, the Jayhawks scored the next 14 points and took a 35-25 lead, with help from the seven consecutive points by Mason.
“He went through a phase there where he didn’t play as well,” Self said of Mason. “I think he’s playing at a pretty high level now.”
Jesse Newell: @jessenewell