Ben McLemore (Getty Images)
In jeopardy of falling two games out of first place in the Big 12 with a loss to rival Kansas State on Monday night, Kansas responded with a performance worthy of a champion staggered but not beaten.
The host Jayhawks snapped a three-game losing streak by pounding the Wildcats 83-62, reaffirming their status as the Big 12's premier team and quelling concerns at least for now that their eight-year league title streak is in jeopardy.
Buoyed by a roaring crowd at Allen Fieldhouse seemingly intent on willing Kansas back to its usual winning ways, the Jayhawks broke the game open with a 21-6 first-half blitz. They led by 11 after 10 minutes, by 20 after 15 minutes and by 23 two minutes into the second half, never letting Kansas State any closer than 15 the rest of the way.
Redshirt freshman Ben McLemore demonstrated why he's a likely top-five pick next June, erupting for 30 points and six 3-pointers. Senior center Jeff Withey was also terrific on both ends, scoring 17 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking five shots. But the real key for Kansas was the play of Naadir Tharpe, a reserve thrust into an increased role as a result of starting point guard Elijah Johnson's ongoing struggles.
Tharpe only scored seven points, but he played solid defense, pushed the tempo and dished out eight assists against only one turnover. If Tharpe can build on that performance and play with consistency going forward, it will allow Self to ease the pressure on Johnson and use them both together, giving Kansas two ball handlers on the floor at the same time.
That Kansas shot 48.3 percent and put up 83 points employing that strategy Monday night was a welcome sign considering the team's offensive struggles during a three-game losing streak to Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma. Against TCU in particular, the Jayhawks scored only two points in the game's first 13 minutes en route to one of the biggest upset losses of the season.
Kansas has survived some erratic performances on offense at times this season, but only when its defense was getting stops consistently. In recent weeks, teams have forced Withey away from the paint, leaving the Jayhawks without a rim protector and making them more susceptible to dribble penetration.
It remains to be seen if Kansas has solved those problems, but Monday's victory at least was an encouraging sign. The Jayhawks now control their own destiny in the Big 12 title race again, having moved into a first place tie with Kansas State.
Once the outcome was clear late in Monday's second half, the crowd at Allen Fieldhouse launched into a "We own this state" chant.
There won't be any argument now, not after Kansas completed a sweep of its rival, avoided its first four-game losing streak since 1989 and set itself back on course to extend its Big 12 title streak.
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