Even the most pessimistic of Kansas Jayhawk basketball fans had to have an inkling that Monday night’s 64-49 must-have victory over in-state rival Kansas State was probable.
Even after a team masquerading as the Jayhawks had been rolled by 29 points by Texas Tech just 48 hours earlier.
It’s simply in KU’s DNA. When it plays like a bunch of impostors, as was the case on Saturday when Texas Tech could have stared right in the face of Duke and smirked, the Jayhawks dig down deep and always seem to respond with a performance that reboots the fan base.
It certainly didn’t start out that way, though, on Monday. The brimming-with-confidence Wildcats stormed into The Phog and punched KU right in the mouth, forcing Bill Self to call two early timeouts.
But instead of going down meekly as it so often has done on the road, the Jayhawks remained on their feet and came back with haymaker after haymaker.
Thanks to an energized effort by under-utilized Mitch Lightfoot, the ‘Hawks fed off their crowd to flip the game from 7 down to 7 up by halftime, then came with a block party to start the second half to seize control and go up 14.
I was one of those who thought the Jayhawks would allow the Wildcats back into the game and make it close at the end. But Dean Wade obviously isn’t 100 percent and produced just 8 points, while Barry Brown never was a factor with just 4 points, making 1 of 8 shots.
Forget what the ESPN guys said, it was Lightfoot that was the man of the night. Because Dedric Lawson put up 18 points and 14 rebounds he was the chosen one, but the boyish-looking Lightfoot revved up his relentless motor with 9 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks, while igniting a victory-starved crowd. The grand old barn was ear splitting and Kansas State looked beat after KU’s early second-half run.
KU had too much to play for to lose this one. It was two games back of the Wildcats starting the night and its 14-year run of winning or sharing the Big 12 was on the line. It still doesn’t look good for KU considering its next two games are on the road, but at least it won’t relinquish its stranglehold without a fight.
Lawson needed 20 shots to score his 18 points, but he also passed for 5 assists. Devon Dotson, who has far outshone more-heralded freshman Quentin Grimes, was a two-way terror with 16 points and the man responsible for shutting down Brown. Grimes did return from the witness protection program with 12 points, while Lightfoot and Marcus Garrett led a good effort from bench.
Kansas State fans had to be disappointed as I’m sure they believed the wounded Jayhawks were done. This was a chance to dance in Lawrence, but the music never fired up. K-State was looking for a regular-season sweep, which would have been its first in 36 years. But the Wildcats never played with the energy necessary to stay with the inspired Jayhawks.
Kansas State, if it can survive a road game at TCU, should still earn a share of the title or even win it outright. Texas Tech still has to play a game at Iowa State, though this year Hilton Magic has lost some of its fairy dust.
KU and K-State could very well meet in the Big 12 Tournament, which would decide the better team once and for all.