- Jason King
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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse has long been regarded as one of the loudest arenas in all of college basketball.
For a short time Monday, it became one of the quietest.
Just as they were preparing to tie a bow around their 61-44 victory over Baylor, the Jayhawks received a major scare when leading scorer Ben McLemore turned his ankle while trying to cut up court with the ball.
As McLemore lay on the court, writhing in pain, the crowd of 16,300 fell silent.
“My heart dropped,” point guard Elijah Johnson said.
“He said he heard a pop,” coach Bill Self recalled later.
Thirty minutes later, Self and the Jayhawks were all smiles during their postgame news conference. Yes, McLemore had injured his ankle, but it was diagnosed as only a Grade 1 sprain. Self said he’s hopeful McLemore, who averages 16.4 points, will be available for Saturday’s game at Texas.
“He’s all right,” Johnson said after talking with McLemore in the locker room. “He panicked more than anything.”
The rest of Jayhawk Nation did, too -- and for good reason.
With each passing game, it’s obvious KU’s long-term success rests largely with McLemore, who after 16 college games is already being pegged as the potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
A 6-foot-5 guard, McLemore finished with a game-high 17 points Monday, grabbed eight boards and made three steals. He’s now averaging a team-high 16.4 points.
As good as McLemore was against Baylor and as pivotal as he is to KU’s success, the real story Monday was the Jayhawks’ defense. Kansas had as many blocked shots (13) as Baylor did field goals.
The Bears shot just 23.2 percent from the field, the lowest mark by a conference foe since 1998-89. Baylor’s 44 points were the fewest allowed by KU in a conference game since 2007.
Kansas, which led by as many as 19 points, improved to 15-1 overall and 3-0 in Big 12 play. Baylor is now 11-5 and 3-1. Monday’s victory was the fourth in nine days for fourth-ranked KU.
“We did look a little tired,” Self said, “but our guys were excited to play Baylor and play at home and on Big Monday. I didn’t sense any fatigue factor with us tonight. I thought we played with great energy.”
Only three players scored in double figures for Kansas, which looked much crisper than it did in Saturday’s 60-46 win at lowly Texas Tech.
“We handled [the past nine days] well,” said Johnson, who scored 12 points. “I’m proud of our team right now for being strong enough to stand up and keep playing and not listen to the fatigue in our bodies.”
Kansas point guard Travis Releford said Kansas’ assistant coaches -- mainly Kurtis Townsend -- did a great job of preparing the Jayhawks for Baylor.
“Once they called a play, we were all into them,” Releford said. “We knew who they were trying to get the ball to on certain plays.”
It’s not as if KU’s performance came against a terrible offensive team. The Bears rank 37th in the country with 76.8 points per contest. During a recent four-game stretch against BYU, Gonzaga, Texas and Texas Tech, Baylor averaged 83.5 points a game.
Baylor has solid post players in Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin and Ricardo Gathers, but they couldn’t do anything down low against KU, which outscored the Bears 38-14 in the paint. Strangely, though, Baylor seemed insistent on trying to score inside.
“Yeah,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said, “that didn’t work very well, did it?”
Baylor has a trio of good shooters in guard Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin, but instead of doing what they do best -- which is shoot -- the Bears' perimeter players tried to score inside, too. Baylor’s guards (A.J. Walton, especially) attempted a ton of wild, ill-advised shots and passes in the paint that were either blocked or intercepted.
Jackson, who entered the game averaging a league-high 19.2 points, scored just 10 on Monday and zero after intermission. Self said he wanted to slow down the tempo against Baylor.
“A free-flowing game brings Pierre into the game a lot more,” he said. “It wasn’t a very artistic game, by any means. But this was a game where we probably needed to ugly it up a little bit. If it’s a totally free-flowing game, they’ve got enough athletes to do some things to us to hurt us.”
The strategy worked, as KU walked away with its 101st win in its past 102 games at Allen Fieldhouse.
With Saturday’s game at Texas still five days away, the attention throughout the next week will be focused on McLemore -- or rather, McLemore’s ankle. The Jayhawks might be able to beat Texas without him Saturday in Austin, but they’ll definitely need him for the following contest, a Jan. 22 showdown against Kansas State in Manhattan.
“To see something like that who works hard, you don’t want to see anything bad happen to him,” Johnson said of McLemore. “He tries to do everything right. I just don’t feel like he deserves to be hurt right now or to be cheated out of playing. I feel like he’s been cheated out of playing long enough.”
Johnson was referring to the 2011-12 season, when McLemore was forced to sit out because of questions surrounding his high school transcripts.
“He’ll be all right,” Johnson said. “Ben will bounce back, I’m sure."