MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP)—Kansas coach Bill Self has no doubt that this is his favorite championship team.
“From my standpoint, this was sweeter than any of the other ones that I have had, because we started 1-2,” Self said after the 18th-ranked Jayhawks beat Kansas State 66-52 on Saturday to clinch at least a share of the Big 12 championship.
“We were 1-2 and not very good, and guys got confidence and guys grew up and got pretty good late,” said Self, whose 2004-05 team shared the Big 12 title with Oklahoma but then lost a core of senior stars that included All-American Wayne Simien. “To me, I have more pride with a team not expecting to do it, and do it, than a team that is expected to do it and does it.”
It is the sixth conference championship for Self, whose teams also won two Big 10 titles at Illinois and two Western Athletic Conference titles at Tulsa. Kansas (22-7, 13-3 Big 12) can win its sixth Big 12 championship outright if No. 6 Texas loses Sunday to No. 19 Oklahoma.
“We’re a young team and not too many people expected much out of us,” said sophomore guard Russell Robinson, who had 11 points against the Wildcats (15-12, 6-10). “We tried to go out there and play hard every day and it paid off.”
Brandon Rush tied a career high with 24 points and Mario Chalmers added 14 points for Kansas, which won its 23rd straight game in Manhattan and is 18-0 in Bramlage Coliseum since it opened in 1989.
The latest loss might have come in the last home game for Kansas State coach Jim Wooldridge, who has been under pressure to reach the NCAA tournament—or lose his job after six seasons in Manhattan.
Wooldridge smilingly deflected questions about his future, saying he was focused only on getting Kansas State—which has lost a school-record nine games by five or fewer points this year—ready for the Big 12 tournament.
“I think the important thing for all of us in this program—the players, the other coaches—from my perspective, the best thing to do is leave that issue dormant,” said Wooldridge, who drew a first-half technical for protesting a no-call in Kansas’ offensive end. “We’re going on into Monday and Tuesday of next week to do something in the tournament.”
The Wildcats made it close in the second half but failed to get their first season sweep of Kansas since 1983.
“It’s not about beating KU. It’s just the fact that we didn’t win tonight,” said guard Cartier Martin, who said Martin, who was the only Kansas State player in double figures with 17 points.
Rush, a freshman guard, took only eight shots and was held to 12 points when Kansas State won 59-55 on Jan. 14 in Lawrence, breaking a 31-game losing streak to the Jayhawks. This time, he was 9-for-18 from the field, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range.
The Jayhawks went 6-for-9 from outside the arc in the first half, taking a 15-point lead at the break, before Kansas State started its comeback.
The Wildcats opened the second half with an 8-0 run to get within 39-32. They twice cut the margin to three points, the last time on Martin’s 3-pointer with just under 11 minutes left to get within 49-46.
But they didn’t score again from the field, and clutch plays by freshman forward Julian Wright helped the Jayhawks regain control of the game.
Wright’s tip-in with 6:12 left made it 54-47. On Kansas State’s ensuing possession, he made a diving steal, rolled over while avoiding a traveling call and flipped to Rush for a dunk. Then, after rebounds at each end by Wright, Robinson hit a 3-pointer to give Kansas a 59-47 lead with five minutes to go.
Kansas State’s David Hoskins hit four free throws in a one-minute span, the last two cutting Kansas’ lead to 60-52 with 3:11 left, but those were the Wildcats’ last points of the day.
“I just think it was mental mistakes by us,” Martin said. “We just didn’t take care of the ball as well as we should have.”
Point guard Clent Stewart, who led the Wildcats with 15 points in their victory in Lawrence, has been struggling with an ankle injury and was held scoreless on Saturday.
Kansas State hit its first three field goals and took a 6-2 lead in the first 3 1/2 minutes, but then committed a rash of turnovers and missed straight shots over the next 5 1/2 minutes. The Jayhawks capitalized with a 16-1 run, including a 10-0 stretch in which Chalmers scored five points, for an 18-7 lead with just under 11 1/2 minutes left in the first half.
The Jayhawks closed out the half with a 9-3 run—capped by Rush’s banked 3-pointer with 1 second left—for a 39-24 halftime lead.