Kansas defeated Kansas State for the third time this season, pulling away in the second half for a 70-54 victory and the Jayhawks' sixth Big 12 tournament championship in eight years.
KU center Jeff Withey scored 17 points and pulled down nine rebounds, and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Freshman forward Perry Ellis also made the all-tournament team, totaling 12 points, six rebounds and two assists off the bench a night after a breakout, 23-point performance against Iowa State.
Kansas shot better than 55% (16-for-29) in the second half, a trend throughout the tournament. The Jayhawks hit a combined 64.2% of their shots in the second half of all three games – including a remarkable 15-for-22 behind the three-point line. Their overall 55.6% shooting over the three days was a tournament record.
Does it ever get old, Travis Releford was asked.
"What, winning?" the Kansas senior said, smiling. "No, not at all. We enjoy it, take pride in it and we work hard for it."
He and the Jayhawks continued their dominance of the tournament – and of Kansas State, which now has lost 45 of the last 48 games against its in-state rival dating to 1994. The Wildcats fell to 0-8 against KU in the Big 12 tournament.
The Cats (27-7) battled nearly evenly for a little more than a half on Saturday, then succumbed. Kansas led by only three when KU's Kevin Young hit a jumper in the lane, igniting a 12-3 run that pushed the margin to 40-28 with 13:25 left to play.
Withey hit a free throw, then dropped in a lob pass from teammate Ben McLemore. Backup point guard Naadir Tharpe nailed a three pointer, Releford scored on a breakaway slam and Withey added two more free throws.
More remarkable was what wasn't happening. McLemore, the high NBA lottery pick in waiting, still was scoreless. Point guard Elijah Johnson had three points and five turnovers. And the top-seeded Jayhawks (29-5) nonetheless were in command.
The 7-foot Withey consistently got to the free throw line, where he was 6-for-9 in the second half. Tharpe hit three three-pointers in the final 14½ minutes, and combined with Ellis to give Kansas 24 points off the bench (to K-State's 11). In their three tournament games, non-starters gave the Jayhawks a total of 100 points.
They sealed the deal against Kansas State on defense – most noticeably with Releford's lockdown of Wildcats standout Rodney McGruder.
McGruder hit just two of his first 10 shots from the field, and had only four points at the time Kansas started its game-turning run. He heated up, finishing with 18 points, but couldn't bring the Wildcats back. Or really, close.
"The key was help from my teammates," Releford said, "them being aware, letting me know when screens were coming. Because he (McGruder) ran off a lot of screens. I knew coming into this game that I had to make him uncomfortable and be there on the catch and not let him get easy looks, and I think that was a key in the first half."
The opening half was a grind for both teams – producing a combined 16 field goals, 18 turnovers and just 40 points – but Kansas State struggled in particular. The Wildcats went nearly a 10½-minute stretch without a field goal. They shot just 35% overall, making just six of 24 treys.
"We started scoring a little bit more in the second half, but the defense wasn't as good as the first half," said sophomore point guard Angel Rodriguez, who scored 10 points. "It was never a balance."
It's always seems to be something against KU. The only other time the Wildcats reached the Big 12 tournament final, in 2010, they ran into the Jayhawks and lost. Kansas swept the Cats in two regular-season games this year, though the two teams wound up sharing the league title at 14-4.
"How the season played out this year, I think it means a lot to us and our fans," Releford said of Saturday's win. "They have a lot of bragging rights now that this game is over."
Said KU coach Bill Self, "Even though we tied … we left little doubt leaving here, beating them three times, that we were pretty good."
The superlatives have piled up at Kansas State this season. Winningest class of seniors. Most victories for a first-year coach. First share of regular-season conference title since disco was king.
But coach Bruce Weber was frank. "It's a big rivalry," he said, "but it's not a rivalry until we make it a rivalry. And that means beat them somewhere.
"Hats off to them. Bill does a great job. … When you go into a league, you think about the best team in the league. And they're the best team."
Both teams are bound for the NCAA tournament, with Kansas in line for no worse than a No. 2 seed and K-State probably a No. 4. The Jayhawks almost certainly will open close to home – Kansas City is an early-round site – and the Wildcats could, too, depending on how the NCAA selection committee plays it.
Could KU score a No. 1 seed for the fifth time in seven years?
"I think we're very deserving to be in the discussion," Self said. "I think we'll be one of the, for sure, five or six most highly ranked teams on the seed line.
"I'm not going to make a plea that we should definitely be a (No.) 1. We've been a 1 and lost in the second round, been a 2 and played in the championship game. But it would be nice for our kids. … Our resume is pretty good."
Jeff Withey, Kansas - Most Oustanding Player
Perry Ellis, Kansas
Rodney McGruder, Kansas State
Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State