MANHATTAN, Kan. — When the buzzer finally sounded, Travis Releford popped his blue jersey and turned toward the Kansas State student section. Releford smiled, his sweaty palms holding out the stitched KANSAS on his chest. Moments later, Elijah Johnson stopped to blow a couple of kisses in the same direction. They were brief moments, only a few seconds, but they signaled what has become so true here at Bramlage Coliseum.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
Maybe Kansas doesn’t dominate this place like it once did. But on most nights, when the two old rivals get together in Manhattan, the Jayhawks usually find a way to own the day.
“That goodbye kiss felt good,” Johnson said. “It felt great to know that I came in here and won three of four. There’s a lot going on in my mind.”
No. 3 Kansas edged No. 11 Kansas State 59-55 on Tuesday night, the latest chapter in a longstanding and lopsided rivalry. KU, which has now won 23 of 25 at Bramlage Coliseum, improved to 17-1 overall and took sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a perfect 5-0 start. No. 11 Kansas State dropped to 15-3 and 4-1 in the Big 12.
Hours earlier, the Jayhawks had arrived in the visitor’s locker room with a collective goal. They had stood as a group, senior Kevin Young said, preparing for the night ahead.
“When we get here,” Young said, “We say, ‘We just gotta have a party in the other team’s locker room.’ ”
K-State had a chance in the final moments, cutting the lead to 56-53 on a layup from Shane Southwell with 24 seconds left. But sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe made some clutch free throws as the defense salted the game away.
And by late on Tuesday night, the party was on. Jim Woolridge. Frank Martin. Bruce Weber. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who’s coaching K-State.
Releford had shut down K-State leading scorer Rodney McGruder, holding him to 13 points on four-of-12 shooting. The Jayhawks had held K-State to 35.1 percent shooting. And when KU needed offense down the stretch, freshman Ben McLemore (11 points) and senior Jeff Withey (11 points) found a way to make plays.
Kansas coach Bill Self agreed that the game wasn’t very artistic. And despite a 16-game winning streak, the Jayhawks have had a messy few weeks. The offensive struggles have been notable, but certainly not paralyzing. And as Self said late on Tuesday night, this way of winning — the scratching, the clawing, the toughness — was probably always going to be this KU team’s formula.
“I knew we’d have to (win games like this),” Self said. “The thing about it is, we’re not great offensively. When you look at our individual pieces, it’s not a great offensive team. But when the ball moves … we can look great at times.”
Kansas, which led 31-27 at halftime, took partial control of the game in the first 10 minutes of the second half, holding onto a one- or two-possession lead before McLemore converted a put-back that stretched the lead to 48-41 with under 9 minutes left. McLemore then knocked down two more jumpers in the next two possessions as KU pushed the lead to 53-43.
But K-State’s Southwell responded by making consecutive three-pointers, shaving the lead back to 54-49 with under 4 minutes to play. K-State coach Bruce Weber then burned his final timeout, before Withey hit a tough jump hook in the lane.
Self called Withey’s basket the biggest play of the game. For Self, it was another measure of toughness, his team making plays that count in the most hostile of environments.
“My big belief is you gotta learn how to win games in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s,” Self said, “You’ve got to. And we’ve been able to accomplish that.”
It was the same old ending for another Sunflower Showdown. The Bramlage Coliseum bleachers were packed, oozing with the accustomed blend of anger and enthusiasm. And even though K-State victories in Manhattan have been about as rare as royal weddings, recent history suggested that K-State had more than a puncher’s chance.
Sometime this week, that thought crossed into Johnson’s mind. He’d been here three times — and lost once — and he wasn’t ready to leave here with another blemish.
“I’m gonna miss it,” Johnson said, walking up the tunnel toward the team bus. “As crazy and weird as this may sound, I’m gonna miss K-State.”