A roaring sellout crowd. Chippy fouls and swinging elbows. A dramatic finish on the final possession.
The first meeting between Big 12 co-favorites Kansas and Oklahoma State was worthy of the months of pregame hype that preceded it in every way except one: The most highly touted player on the floor didn't live up to expectations.
Kansas strengthened its grip on first place in the Big 12 with a 80-78 victory even though freshman Andrew Wiggins delivered his quietest performance of the season. Wiggins scored only three points on 1 of 5 shooting, pulled down just two rebounds and sat on the bench for long stretches of the second half as the Jayhawks were trying to thwart a furious Oklahoma State comeback.
That Kansas could outlast its most daunting Big 12 challenger with Wiggins scoring 13 points below his season scoring average has to be an intimidating sight for the rest of the leagues. The Jayhawks showed off their depth Saturday in improving to 4-0 in league play, two or more games ahead in the loss column of every other Big 12 team besides second-place Kansas State.
Center Joel Embiid, once an afterthought in the top freshman debate, proved again why he'll draw consideration for the No. 1 pick in next June's NBA draft, scoring 13 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and coming two blocked shots shy of a triple double. Point guard Naadir Tharpe, benched as recently as a month ago, continued to seize back control of the position, following a 23-point performance against Iowa State on Monday with 21 points on only eight shots. And backup guard Frank Mason made the biggest play of the game, atoning for two missed free throws down the stretch by stripping Oklahoma State's Le'Bryan Nash as he rose up for a potential go-ahead 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Mason's gutsy decision to risk a foul thwarted an impressive Oklahoma State rally from a 17-point halftime deficit and an 11-point deficit with less than three minutes to play. Phil Forte and Marcus Smart keyed the late surge, the former burying a pair of 3-pointers for six of his team-high 23 points off the bench and the latter getting to the rim or the foul line.
Oklahoma State might not have needed late-game heroics to get back within striking distance had its stars performed up to their usual levels.
Smart shot only 3 of 14 from the field, though he got to the foul line enough to finish with 16 points and he also added 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Nash battled foul trouble throughout the game but managed to chip in with 10 points and five rebounds.
But neither Smart nor Nash were nearly as invisible as Wiggins, who played only 23 minutes even though foul trouble wasn't an issue. Self could have had Wiggins come in to guard Smart late in the second half but chose to leave his best perimeter defender on the bench until the final 90 seconds.
There will surely be future big games when the Jayhawks need Wiggins to carry them, but for right now Kansas has to like where it stands.
Since an up-and-down four-loss non-league season that culminated in a rare home loss to San Diego State, Kansas has won at Oklahoma and Iowa State, clobbered second-place Kansas State in Lawrence and survived Oklahoma State's rally despite Wiggins' off day. That's a big early statement that suggests the Jayhawks have a much better chance of celebrating their 10th straight Big 12 title in March than any of their fellow contenders do of dethroning them.
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