LAWRENCE, Kans. – Want to flip the script? Then no flips.
Last season, about 50 weeks ago, Oklahoma State accomplished a rare feat, winning in Allen Fieldhouse and ending Kansas’ 33-game home court winning streak. Marcus Smart, then a freshman, scored 25 with nine rebounds and celebrated with a back flip.
The recollection of that acrobatic merriment plus Smart’s comments at Big 12 media day about KU’s hyped freshman Andrew Wiggins provided myriad story angles for the Cowboys’ return trip into the Phog.
This time, there was no gymnastic performance by the visitors. The signature post-game celebration was the Jayhawks’ Naadir Tharpe leaving the court cupping his hand to his ears to luxuriate in the noise created by 16,300 rock chalkers.
No. 15 Kansas continues to put early distance between itself and the rest of the Big 12. The Jayhawks (13-4, 4-0) turned back No. 9 Oklahoma State’s second half rally to post an 80-78 victory Saturday. Kansas State, a team the Jayhawks beat by 26 a week ago, is alone in second place at 4-1. KU plays host to Baylor, which is off to a 1-3 start, on Big Monday.
“This is like having a lead in the second inning,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It's too early."
It was a Dickens of a game, a tale of two 20s.
“We played well the first half with a free mind,” Self said. “It flip-flopped (second half).”
That was the only flipping that happened. Self said it was a “sense of relief” after the victory. Coaches who see their team nearly lose a 19-point lead on their home court are always relieved to be discussing a victory.
The Jayhawks went on a 13-0 run midway through the first half to raise the Allen Fieldhouse decibel meter to sand-blasting level. Wiggins made his only basket, a step-back 3-pointer and Tarik Black had two dunks.
“Our offense was so bad, a lot of one-on-one and forced shots,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford. “That put a lot of pressure on our defense.”
The Cowboys also mired themselves with early foul trouble. Le’Bryan Nash got two fouls in the first four minutes. He returned late in the first half but got his third with 5:24 remaining. Without Michael Cobbins, having the 6-7 Nash bench further reduced Oklahoma State’s size.
And Kansas had the Big Man. Freshman Joel Embiid, a 7-footer, was a rim protector/shot rejector. He finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks in a season-high 32 minutes.
"I always have the same mindset," Embiid said. "Just do my job."
Embiid has only been playing basketball for three years but his shot-block timing, his smooth low-post moves – he rolled in a short hook with his left (off) hand – and his “where’d-that-come-from?” instincts continues to wow observers. He dunked home a lob and his only assist came when he threw a lob for an Ellis dunk.
"I mean, goodness, he's so talented," Ford said. "He's so good."
Smart, who has become the Big 12’s visiting villain that the home crowd loves to boo, missed 11 of his 14 attempts and was 0-for-6 from 3-point range. But he finished one assist shy of a triple double – 16 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, four steals.
“I had to become a facilitator because they weren’t gonna let me score,” Smart said. “Foul trouble hurt us and we had to adjust to how the game was called. But we dug a big hole in the first half because we didn’t play well. We made a lot of dumb plays.”
The Cowboys trailed 47-30 at halftime and they left their dumb plays in the locker room. Oklahoma State’s 3/4–court trap befuddled the Jayhawks who committed six turnovers in the first six minutes after intermission.
“We were ridiculous on offense to start the second half and gave them a bunch of opportunities,” Self said.
Oklahoma State cashed those chances from behind the line. Markel Brown and Phil Forte made six 3-pointers, with Brown’s triple slicing KU’s lead to 59-56 with 11:02 remaining. Fortified with new hope, the Cowboys made the Jayhawks sweat.
Freshman point guard Frank Mason missed two free throws in the final 23 seconds that allowed Oklahoma State to make it a one-possession game. But Mason was able to dislodge the ball from Nash’s hands to prevent a final shot attempt.
“At halftime we knew it would take a big effort, said Forte, who finished with 23 and made 7-of-10 threes. “We tried to take the game in four-minute intervals. We played as a team in the second half and if we had started like that, it might have been different.”
What’s different for Kansas is Tharpe. The junior point guard mad three crucial field goals to keep the visitors at bay. After scoring a career-high 23 on nine shots Monday at Iowa State, he followed that up with 21 on eight shots against Oklahoma State. Over the last three games, Tharpe has 48 points and 19 assists.
“He played extremely well,” Self said of the point guard he benched in December. “He made big shots. I am thrilled to death with him. He’s doing great.”
And so is Kansas. As Self pointed out, the positive of Saturday’s victory was that the team’s top three scorers (Wiggins, Perry Ellis and Wane Selden Jr.) had poor games (combining for 18 points). The mild panic caused by four nonconference losses is giving way to the notion that a 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title isn’t farfetched.
“I see everybody smiling,” Tharpe said. “You know, you see a play happen when there’s a timeout and everybody is getting off the bench and everybody’s excited. I think everybody is just starting to understand this is how Kansas basketball is supposed to be played.”