Here it was, late in the second half, and Joel Embiid was giggling. Clapping and giggling. One clap, then two. Then a few more. In the midst of a scalding-hot atmosphere inside Hilton Coliseum, Embiid couldn’t stop smiling.
Moments earlier, he had pretty much swallowed an Iowa State shot attempt, ripping the ball away from Iowa State's Dustin Hogue. Next came an outlet pass, and then Kansas sophomore Jamari Traylor was finishing a dunk on the other end.
“I knew I had to play well for us to win,” Embiid would say. “So in the second half, I changed my mindset.”
Embiid was taking control. And so were the Jayhawks. Here inside Hilton Coliseum, amidst a sea of gold, the message was clear: The Big 12 title race still runs through Kansas. A young team was playing with joy. All that Hilton Magic never seems to work when the Jayhawks come to town.
No. 15 Kansas 77, No. 8 Iowa State 70.
“Maybe they’re growing up,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Maybe after a few months of growing pains, the Jayhawks are finally enjoying the ride.
“The thing about it is,” Self continued, “If you followed our team closely, you can make a case (that) this team probably enjoyed playing less than other teams we’ve had.
“But since we’ve started conference play, I think they’re having as much fun as any team we’ve ever had."
Embiid would finish with 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks, burnishing his lottery pick credentials with another breakout performance on national television.
But this was more than a 7-footer controlling the lane against a smaller team. Freshman Andrew Wiggins controlled the defensive glass, scoring 17 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. And junior guard Naadir Tharpe was the latest Kansas guard to turn wrestling heel in Hilton Coliseum, finishing with 23 points while hitting his first seven shots.
For nine straight seasons, the Jayhawks have owned the Big 12 for a rather simple reason: They have All-American big men, and most other Big 12 teams do not. So as Embiid took control in the second half, the old story line emerged.
Kansas, 12-4, improved to 3-0 in the Big 12 with two of those victories coming on the road. The Jayhawks also moved two games ahead of Iowa State, 14-2 and 2-2, in the conference loss column. The team that was once thought to be Final Four caliber is emerging, slowly, and by the week.
“I would like to think so,” Wiggins said. “We’re just practicing every day hard, the chemistry is coming together well. And before, the pieces of the puzzle weren’t really together. But now they’re coming together.”
Just two days earlier, Embiid had lost his cool against Kansas State and been ejected after a Flagrant 2 foul. If he was hoping for redemption on Monday, he didn’t do himself any favors when he was whistled for a technical after getting tangled with Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane in the opening minutes.
Moments later, Embiid was on the bench, and Self was staring at his young big man.
What are you doing?
“He just told me to keep my cool,” Embiid said.
When Embiid took a seat, the Jayhawks led 15-4. When both teams headed to the locker rooms at halftime, Iowa State had closed even at 36-36. And Self delivered another strong message to Embiid.
“He just told me to stay aggressive,” Embiid said. “The past couple games, I didn’t play well.”
Nearly an hour before the game, Iowa State’s Kane had bounced onto the floor of Hilton Coliseum, dancing and rapping through pregame warmups, showing little discomfort in a sprained ankle suffered on Saturday at Oklahoma. And why not? Before Monday night, the Jayhawks had won eight of nine here inside Hilton Coliseum — and 16 of 17 overall in the series. Maybe Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg had restored some of the supernatural to Hilton Coliseum since his arrival in 2010, but the magic had mostly been missing against Kansas.
On this particular night, Hilton Coliseum felt like a boiling madhouse of angst and energy. Just one year ago, the Jayhawks had escaped with an overtime victory, ripping a victory away in the final minutes. On that night, Elijah Johnson had gone for 39 points. And one year later, Tharpe pulled off his best EJ impersonation.
“A lot of people on Twitter were talking about that Elijah game,” Tharpe said with a smile.
On the other end, Iowa State couldn’t buy a bucket, hitting just four of 25 from three-point range.
For Kansas, it was the second straight win over a top 25 team — with two more games against top 25 teams looming. The Jayhawks return home to face Oklahoma State on Saturday and will take on Baylor on Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
For a night, Kansas played with joy. Now the process continues.
“When dudes are having fun and enjoying the time and enjoying the process, it’s much more easy," Tharpe said. "You could see it out there. Wiggs was even laughing. Everybody is involved.”