KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One by one, Kansas players headed to the top step of the ladder to cut down the nets, with Jeff Withey carefully nipping at a piece of nylon and then waving it to the roar of the fans.
There was no way the Jayhawks were going to share this celebration.
No way they were going to share this title.
Withey had 17 points and nine rebounds Saturday night, and the seventh-ranked Jayhawks used their trademark suffocating defense to beat No. 11 Kansas State 70-54 and win the their ninth Big 12 tournament championship — not to mention the tiebreaker over their regular-season co-champs.
“I felt like this game had to be played,” said the Jayhawks’ Elijah Johnson, smiling. “I think we fed into it, and I think they did, too, and at the end of the day, it was a championship game, and I felt it had to be played for this to be decided.”
There should be no argument any longer over the best in the Big 12.
The Jayhawks (29-5), who may have locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with the victory, beat Kansas State for the third time this season. They’ve also won their last 11 meetings in conference tournaments, and 39 of the 42 games played since the inception of the Big 12.
“I think how this season played out this year, I think it means a lot,” Kansas guard Travis Releford said. “And our fans, they have a lot of bragging rights now that this game is over.”
Rodney McGruder scored 18 points despite a poor first half, and Angel Rodriguez had 10 for the Wildcats (27-7), who still have not won a conference tournament in more than 30 years.
“I just wanted this victory very badly,” McGruder said quietly. “We worked so hard, worked so hard to get here, just to let it slip.”
The interest in Round 3 between the two teams resulted in a record crowd of 19,256.
The ticket was so hot that Eric and Faith DeVault, who were married Saturday morning in a suburban of Kansas City, were given a pair as a gift and turned out for the game still dressed in their tuxedo and wedding dress — though Faith ditched her heels for a pair of flats.
They were treated to a first half that would’ve made Bill Snyder and Charlie Weis proud.
Two of the best defensive teams in the country, Kansas and Kansas State made more blocks and tackles than layups and jump shots over the first 20 minutes. Both teams committed nine turnovers, and the Wildcats had just three assists while going 6 of 27 from the field.
“It was a low-scoring game,” Rodriguez said, “because both teams were playing good defense.”
Kansas State actually struck first, pulling ahead 11-8 on a 3-pointer by Martavious Irving with 11:44 remaining in the half. But the Jayhawks buckled down on defense and the Wildcats didn’t make another field goal until Rodriguez rattled in a deep 3 with 1:25 left on the clock.
Meanwhile, Johnson and Naadir Tharpe each hit 3-pointers during a 14-2 run by the Jayhawks, and a bucket by Kevin Young in the closing seconds made it 24-16 at the break.
It was Kansas State’s lowest-scoring half this season, and the second-lowest by Kansas.
“Today was probably the poorest we played all week offensively in the first half,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “but we look up and we’re still up eight because we defended so well.”
McGruder, who scored 24 points in a quarterfinal win over Texas and 24 in the semifinals against Oklahoma State, had four points on 2-of-9 shooting in the first half, while Ben McLemore — the Jayhawks’ star freshman — was scoreless after missing three 3-pointers.
The Wildcats finally got into a rhythm early in the second half, and a put-back off McGruder’s miss by big Thomas Gipson got them to 28-25. But that’s when Kansas once against clamped down on defense, and the result was another 12-3 to seize control.
Young started it with a bucket around the rim, Tharpe hit an open 3-pointer and then made a nice feed to Travis Releford for a dunk. A few minutes later, Tharpe hit another 3-pointer to give the Jayhawks a 43-31 and force an incensed Kansas State coach Bruce Weber to call timeout.
“In games like this, everybody’s going to go on a run,” Withey said. “They went on a run, and we just countered with another run. We knew we had to get stops.”
They kept getting stops, too.
Kansas stretched its lead to 60-46 on a 3-pointer by Perry Ellis, who followed his career-high 23 points in a semifinal win over Iowa State with 12 more against the Wildcats, and 65-48 on a three-point play by Withey that essentially wrapped up the game.
The Wildcats never could get the lead under 10 the rest of the way as Kansas improved to 9-1 in Big 12 tournament title games. The Jayhawks also improved to 6-0 this season at Sprint Center, which just so happens to be a host site for the NCAA tournament next weekend.
Might the Jayhawks carry a No. 1 seed right back to Kansas City?
“I think we’re deserving to be in the discussion,” Self said. “I think we’ll be for sure one of the five or six most highly ranked teams on the seed line.”