KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This had to be an odd feeling for Kansas.
Whether it was a preview of what’s to come Saturday, well, that remains to be seen.
The No. 17-ranked Jayhawks were roundly booed jogging out for pregame warmups ahead of Friday night’s Big 12 Tournament semifinal against West Virginia, the typically friendly confines of Sprint Center turned venomous by leftover fans of Iowa State and Kansas State. The Cyclones prevailed over the Wildcats in a barn-burning semifinal, with KU emerging just moments after ISU earned the berth in the 5 p.m. Saturday championship game.
As waves of purple filed out of the downtown arena, the atmosphere became more favorable to No. 3-seeded KU, which rolled to a 88-74 victory over the 10th-seeded Mountaineers. After the Elite Eight-level environment Cyclone fans stoked in the earlier semifinal, though, the question remains: What kind of climate can the 11-time Big 12 Tournament champion Jayhawks expect in the title clash?
Friday, at least, didn’t provide that kind of drama, with Dedric Lawson scoring 28 points, Quentin Grimes 18 with five made 3s and KU producing its most points since Dec. 18.
Here’s how it happened.
The Jayhawks (25-8) trailed by as many as seven points across a lethargic start, but an unlikely player shook the team from its prolonged first-half slump.
The freshman guard Grimes, who has struggled to live up to the lofty expectations of his status as a five-star recruit, drained five first-half 3s on five attempts. The first gave KU its first points. The second at the 4:11 mark evoked the first real roar from a partisan-yet-sleepy Sprint Center audience. The third was a make through contact in front of the WVU (14-20) bench that resulted in a four-point play, giving the Jayhawks their first lead in nearly 10 minutes, 38-36, with 2:11 left in the period, and Grimes' fourth trey came the very next possession, at the tail end of a 13-2 run for KU.
Grimes saved his best for last, though. With time running down on the opening period, the suddenly-confident wing put up a deep attempt from just beyond the Big 12 logo — it went in at the buzzer, of course, giving the Jayhawks a 48-40 advantage at the break. As he ran toward the tunnel and to the KU locker room, a smiling Grimes threw a pair of 3-point hand gestures down to his knees.
All told, Grimes finished an active first half with 16 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals.
KU didn’t let up out of the break, with Grimes’ teammates getting in on the fun.
A put-back layup through contact and free-throw conversion by freshman forward David McCormack 80 seconds into the final period kick-started a pivotal 14-2 run for the Jayhawks, who, after a Derek Culver bucket, notched three consecutive makes in tight from Lawson, Grimes and Lawson again. Lawson drained a 3-pointer to make the KU advantage 16, and Marcus Garrett capped the rally with a driving layup of his own to make the score 64-46 KU with 14:29 remaining.
Culver stopped the bleeding with another layup, but if it wasn’t at that point too late, it was almost certainly too little. The Jayhawks built their lead to 23 points, and while the Mountaineers cut the deficit to 13 on a late 10-0 run, KU responded with a 6-0 stretch, with Lawson putting the game out of reach with a layup that ballooned the lead to 81-62 with 5:19 remaining.
Ochai Agbaji’s rim-rocking dunk off a Devon Dotson lob made the lead 20 with two minutes left, the exclamation point on a well-rounded evening. All that remained from there was the matter of planning for Saturday, where the No. 5-seeded Cyclones will look to become the lowest seed to ever win the Big 12 Tournament in its 23-year history. Iowa State has won five Big 12 Tournaments, including three of the last five at Sprint Center, which has become a “Hilton Coliseum South” of sorts for the well-traveled fan base.
Dotson scored 13 points and Garrett pitched in 11 to round out the double-figure scorers for KU. Lamont West's 16 paced the Mountaineers, who got 14 from Culver and 10 from Brandon Knapper.