One word described Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in this Sunflower Showdown: preservation.
The Jayhawks needed to preserve their home court, a venue where head coach Bill Self has never lost a Big Monday game. They needed to preserve their standing as the Big 12’s alpha dog (or, at least, they needed to preserve a chance to claim their 15-straight conference title). They needed to preserve their stance as “big brother” against Kansas State, who came into Monday two games ahead of Kansas and in first place of the Big 12 standings.
Kansas did indeed preserve all of that in emphatic fashion, defeating Kansas State 64-49 to stay within striking distance of the Wildcats in the Big 12 championship race.
After a disappoint loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock Saturday – a game where the Red Raiders made 16 3-point shots – Kansas put the clamps on Kansas State and held them to 32 percent shooting for the game. The defense only intensified from the Jayhawks in the second half as the Wildcats shot only 23.5 percent in the second half.
Kansas did a great job winning the paint by suffocating the Wildcats down low and outscoring them 22-8 in the lane.
Contributing to those efforts was Mitch Lightfoot. In January, Lightfoot had a stretch of five-straight games where he played less than 10 minutes, including two games where he did not see the court. Tonight, he gave this team a jolt of energy off the bench.
#KUbball wins this one 64-49. Kansas improves to 15-0 this year at AFH. Bill Self remains undefeated on Big Monday.
.@Mitchlightfoot is a mood for all of Lawrence right now pic.twitter.com/o3mPFvfGLC
— Sully Engels (@SullyKSNT) February 26, 2019
“I’m not going to lie, it was rough obviously,” Lightfoot said about not getting to play much during throughout the season. “But you got to come in with the same mindset every day, and just understand that opportunities are going to be there, and you got to take it.”
“I thought Mitch played great,” head coach Bill Self said about his junior forward. “When Mitch came in it almost felt like you couldn’t take him out.”
Lightfoot made play after play for this team, particularly in the first half with six-straight points and eight in the half. Lightfoot, born in Kansas City, said this game meant more for him personally. He had to restrain himself when discussing what the rivalry meant to him.
Obviously, [the Sunflower Showdown is] a great rivalry. A lot of people care about it and it means so much to so many people,” Lightfoot said. “It means a lot to coach, it means it the players. Come out here and play, I don’t want to say with a different kind of energy, but it’s got a meaning to us. It’s K-State versus Kansas. Those two teams don’t like each other, and we know it.”
Lightfoot finished with nine points, six rebounds, and three blocks in 31 minutes.
Mitch Lightfoot just hit the Mutombo finger wag. 🤣 pic.twitter.com/EIYrsVwuvx
— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) February 26, 2019
“Mitch brought great energy,” forward Dedric Lawson said after the game. “He played great, knocked down shots, protected the rim, something that we need from Mitch on a consistent basis.”
With the help of Lightfoot and freshman Quentin Grimes, the team sustained their chances of staying competitive in the first half after failing to score for over four minutes to start the half. Neither team got into rhythm early in the half. Self said he felt like his team didn’t play bad early, but the team played tight.
“I told them at the 16-minute mark ‘hey, the game just now started,’” Self said. “Everybody knew we would have nerves.”
Grimes finished with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting. The freshman came into the game leading the team in 3-pointers made with Lagerald Vick out, but he’s only shot 31.8 percent on the season. Self said Grimes may have turned a corner.
“I thought Q played good, played a lot of minutes, played both ends,” Self said. “I think his confidence level is a little different that it was a month ago. …I think he’s growing up right before our eyes.”
Kansas State arrived at Phog Allen with a chance to complete their first sweep of Kansas since 1983 and win their first game at the unfriendly confines since 2006.
The Wildcats have ridden seniors Barry Brown, Dean Wade, and Kamau Stokes all season. However, the trio finished with 24 points on 8-of-25 shooting.
Brown – the team’s leading scorer, averaging 15.7 points per game coming into the game – did not score in the second half and had four points on the night. Wade fouled out and left the court with 8 points and four turnovers.
Kansas State still leads the Big 12 by a half a game against Texas Tech. Texas Tech will host Oklahoma State Wednesday. Kansas State plays Baylor at Bramlage Coliseum Saturday.
Kansas now sits a game back of their Sunflower Showdown foe with three to play. However, the team will need help to claim another Big 12 title. They will need Kansas State and Texas Tech to trip up again in the next 12 days. In the race for the title, Self will keep an eye on TCU down the stretch as the Horned Frogs host both Kansas State and Texas Tech.
“[TCU head coach] Jamie Dixon and the Horned Frogs are my second favorite team in the league without question.”
They will have to travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma to play the Oklahoma State Cowboys Saturday. Tipoff is set for 11 a.m. Self admitted that it does feel different for the team not to be in control of their destiny.
“I don’t know if I can remember a time where we didn’t control our own destiny,” Self said. “I think there has been years where we were five games out and maybe behind a game or something. But going into the last three, I don’t know that we’ve ever been in a situation that we didn’t control it if we won out.”
“We’re going to control what we can control,” Lightfoot said. “The past is in the past. All we can worry about is taking it one game at a time and winning one game at a time. I think you all know the Big 12 is a tough league, and we’ll see what happens.”
#SunflowerShowdown 🔝 Plays #KUbball pic.twitter.com/5MmJ47jkgp
— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) February 26, 2019