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March 2, 2013
No. 6/5 ranked Kansas (25-4; 13-3), in defeating West Virginia (13-16; 6-10), 91-65 late on Saturday afternoon, rolled to its sixth straight victory. While most will remember Ben McLemore's career-high 36 point outing against the Mountaineers, those inside the media room following the game won't soon forget the exchange between McLemore and senior guard Elijah Johnson.
With just a handful of minutes remaining on the game clock, Ben McLemore, the 6-foot-5, 195-pound guard from St. Louis, Mo., walked off the Allen Field house court to a standing ovation. Several weeks ago, none of this seemed possible for McLemore or the Jayhawks.
Exactly one month ago today, Oklahoma State stunned Kansas, 85-80 in Lawrence. Four days later, the Jayhawks traveled to Forth Worth, Texas, and, in a word, suffered a shocking defeat to the Horned Frogs, 62-55. TCU, at the time, was winless in league play, and has yet to capture victory No. 2 in Big 12 play.
On February 9, Kansas fell to Oklahoma, 72-66, in Norman, Okla., and at the time, looked as if Bill Self and the Jayhawks had finally hit rock bottom. While Kansas had shown signs of improvement against the Sooners, the result was still the same.
The outlook of the 2012-13 season forever changed on February 11. Playing host to Kansas State, Kansas demolished the Wildcats, 83-62.
With a national audience watching, McLemore erupted for 30 points, while Jeff Withey added 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, Kevin Young finished with 13 points and nine rebounds and Travis Releford added 10 points and four rebounds.
Since defeating Kansas State on February 11, Kansas, for a majority of its time on the court, has looked invincible. Self's squad defeated Texas, 73-47 on February 16, won at Oklahoma State, 68-67 in double overtime, returned home and crushed TCU, 74-48, traveled to Ames, Iowa, on Monday and shocked Iowa State in overtime, 108-96 and, late on Saturday afternoon, dominated West Virginia to the tune of 91-65.
With his career at Kansas nearing its end, Elijah Johnson, at just the right time, has taken his game to new heights. Against Iowa State, the 6-foot-4, 195-pound guard from Las Vegas, Nev., scored a career-high 39 points, dished out seven assists, and pulled down five rebounds in 39 minutes of action.
On Saturday, Johnson scored just 12 points, but was credited with 10 assists, one block, one steal and was 3-of-4 from behind the arc.
However, it was his partner in crime, Ben McLemore, that stole the show against West Virginia. McLemore, who scored a career-high 36 points, eclipsed Danny Manning's record for most points scored in a game by a freshman.
On Monday night, the spotlight was on Johnson following his career night. McLemore, following his 36 point outburst against West Virginia, was at the center of attention, and Johnson wouldn't have had it any other way.
"I love this kid," said Johnson when talking about McLemore. "I can honestly say that I have learned a lot from him. He's a hard worker. He is a calm cool guy on and off the court. He doesn't change his personality, he's always happy and he's always trying to pump energy in the room.
"He's just a good guy," he added.
Johnson, sitting before a nearly full media room inside Allen Fieldhouse, displayed a side that few, if any at all, had previously seen during his tenure in Lawrence. Playing the best basketball of the season, Kansas, it would appear, is beginning to click on all cylinders.
McLemore and Johnson were joined in double-figures by Jeff Withey, who finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and nine blocks. Naadir Tharpe added eight points, Kevin Young and Travis Releford scored six points each, Evan Manning finished with three points, while Rio Adams, Andrew White and Perry Ellis chipped in two points each.
Along the way, Kansas wowed the sellout crowd with a number of memorable dunks, long-range shots from behind the arc, and played a style of basketball that can best be described as beautiful. Kansas, on Saturday, ran up and down the court, scored in transition, played as unselfish as any team in recent memory and, most importantly, played with an unbelievable amount of passion and energy.
"We really put things together today," said Self. "Especially after the second or third TV timeout when they were still ahead. We played pretty well until the end of the first half and then of course putted around a little bit the first four minutes of the second half. Then we started to play about as efficient offensively as we have played in a while.
"We shared the ball," he added. "We had 29 assists and 34 baskets (FG made for the game). Jeff Withey was great and Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe were really good. Travis Releford and Kevin Young were also solid. The big thing was we had one guy off the charts today. Elijah was off the charts against Iowa State, but today was Ben McLemore time to be off the charts."
McLemore was certainly off the charts, but as a team, Kansas was just as impressive. The Jayhawks dished out 29 assists, committed just 11 turnovers, swatted 13 shots and had nine steals. Kansas shot 56.7 percent (34-of-60) from the field, 61.1 percent (11-of-18) from behind the arc and 66.7 percent (12-of-18) from the free-throw line.
Defensively, Kansas smothered West Virginia to the tune of 32.8 percent (22-of-67) shooting from the field, and 33.3 percent (7-of-21) from behind the arc. Kansas outscored West Virginia in the paint (30-20), scored 18 points off turnovers, and had 18 fast break points.
WVU had more second chance points than KU, 22-10, but that can be attributed to the Mountaineers winning the battle on the glass, 41-36. Despite being outrebounded, Self had no complaints on Saturday.
Kansas, following three straight losses in early February, is on the verge of not only capturing its ninth straight Big 12 regular season championship, but also being awarded a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Still, after exploding for 36 points, McLemore was quick to credit his teammates for his performance.
"I just want to thank my teammates, especially Elijah for creating things for me and helping me get my shots open," said McLemore. "Elijah is a great player because he can see when I get on a role and he wants to keep feeding me."
Winning in March and early April isn't just about having the most talent. As Kansas fans are well aware, the team with the most talent doesn't always emerge victorious. While talent is obviously a key ingredient, so is luck, coaching, matchups, and, above all else, team chemistry and togetherness.
Kansas, with two regular season games remaining, might be as close as any team in recent memory. The bond between each and every player on this team is unbreakable, and that bond was only strengthened during KU's three-game losing streak.
As fans and media outlets were quick to criticize Kansas during its three-game losing streak, Self and the Jayhawks formed an even tighter huddle and knew that it was only a matter of time before things began to click again. You don't win 18 straight games by chance, especially against the likes of Ohio State on the road.
Kansas hit a bump in the road in early February, but with the most important time of the season approaching, the Jayhawks find themselves playing their best basketball of the season.
"I'm feeling good, man," said Johnson on Saturday. "That's really all I can say -- I'm feeling good. I'm feeling better than I've felt in a long time. Not to say that I haven't been feeling this good -- I mean feeling good in general - but right now I just feel better than I have in a while."
Kansas will now turn its attention toward Monday night's matchup against Texas Tech (10-17; 3-3). An already daunting task becomes even more difficult for the Red Raiders, as Withey, Johnson, Releford and Young - all members of KU's senior class - will run through the tunnel and onto the Allen Fieldhouse court for the final time.
Senior night at Kansas is always a special occasion, and this year figures to be no different.
"It will be great," said Self when asked about Senior Night. "You think the day will never come and then it gets here, and it comes so fast. We've got four guys who have won an awful lot of games and have given themselves to this place and represented this place in a first-class way. I certainly believe, and hope, that our fans will turn out and send these guys off right.
"Senior Night is fun, but we have an important job ahead of us," he added. We need to take care of business and keep our conference championship hopes intact. I'm really looking forward to it. I know our guys will be a little tired; we won't be able to practice long tomorrow, but they will be ready. The big goal is to take care of business Monday. Our goal is to win out in the conference and get the best seed we can for the NCAA tournament."