LAWRENCE, Kan. — West Virginia flexes its toughness. Kansas kills with skill.
Bill Self demanded his guys become more Mountaineer-like on Tuesday night, a tough-dude approach that evened up the season series and threw the Big 12 race into a top-heavy cluster once more.
Kansas won 75-65, putting the aggregate score of their two meetings at 139-138 in West Virginia’s slim favor. The Jayhawks desperately needed to win the equalizer, not only to prevent a two-game gap in the standings but also to save face.
“We got punked in Morgantown,” Self said. “Tonight I thought we made many, many, many more competitive plays.”
Then Self dropped the night’s most testosterone-laced addendum: “We played more like men.”
That meant bodying up to prevent Jaysean Paige from attacking the rim, or rather, using multiple bodies to cut off his drives. Last month Paige shredded KU’s defense by scoring a career-best 26 points and getting to the foul line 17 times. In Round 2 he earned only two free throws and missed 11-of-16 shots from the field.
Paige eked out 14 points while making 2-of-9 in the paint, both of those baskets scored through a patchwork of Jayhawk hands and arms.
“They got me pretty good,” Paige said. “I was trying to get to the basket and just seeing defender after defender. I’d get by one person and there’d be more defenders in front of me. They play tough here.”
As in 203-9 tough, which represents the Jayhawks’ unfathomable home record since Self became coach. They outlasted Oklahoma here in triple-overtime, then outhustled West Virginia, leaving all three teams tied for first place at 8-3.
For the Mountaineers, this wasn’t reminiscent of last season’s gut-punch near-upset, nor did it recall the blowout of previous years. More it was a pretty good effort on a night when a superb one was required.
More signs of Kansas tenacity: Landen Lucas, a career 3.7 per-game rebounder, snatched down 16, nearly half his team’s total. From that vaunted KU rotation highlighted by four five-star recruits and four more four-star prospects, it was the three-star kid Lucas who Self labeled “the best player in the game.”
So effective was Lucas his coach afforded only brief cameos to ballyhooed freshmen Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg Jr. The junior blocked four shots by WVU’s penetrating guards and defended Devin Williams sturdily enough in the low post that Kansas didn’t have to double-team.
Kansas played with must-win bounce from the outset. Being swept by West Virginia likely would have squashed all odds of a 12th consecutive Big 12 championship, and the current Jayhawks don’t want that historic run to expire on their watch.
“They wanted to get their win back more than we wanted to get another win,” Williams said.
The absence of suspended West Virginia forward Jonathan Holton probably factored large, though that assumption isn’t foolproof. (Just like we shouldn’t assume a player won’t sabotage his senior season by running afoul of team rules.)
Given how similarly these teams controlled games in their home arenas, one wonders what a potential third matchup in sort-of-neutral Kansas City might bring. And whether bad blood is stirring.
After Wayne Selden put Kansas ahead 17-10 by scoring over Paige on a transition layup, he was assessed a technical by official John Higgins for barking into the face of WVU’s sixth man.
Tarik Phillip later received a flagrant foul for chicken-winging an elbow into the jaw of Jayhawks point guard Frank Mason.
After another whistle, Paige collided with Lucas, drawing some face-to-face words from the KU forward, who also chirped toward players on the Mountaineers bench.
“There was too much talking and the game got a little chippy,” Self said. “But that’s OK. I don’t think it’s going to bother me one bit, and trust me, it doesn’t bother Huggs at all.”
What bothered Bob Huggins more was Kansas owning the toughness edge—one category West Virginia can’t afford to lose.