KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Like Washington State the night before, St. Louis simply didn’t believe Kansas guard Travis Releford could beat them.
They looked at his career numbers – just 5.2 points a game – and examined his shooting stats coming into the CBE Classic (0 for 11 from three-point range and 6 of 23 overall) and concluded there was absolutely no way No. 24 could beat them.
So, the St. Louis game plan was to leave Releford wide open, a car length at times, and simply dare him to shoot.
Releford took the dare. He delivered 21 first-half points and carried the Kansas Jayhawks to a 39-25 lead, an early advantage they would never relinquish enroute to a 73-59 win over the Billikens on Tuesday at the Sprint Center.
Washington State had also paid for the dare when Releford pumped in 17 points, hitting six of seven shots from the field, on Monday night in a Jayhawks rout.
But perhaps Billikens coach Jim Crews didn’t believe the defensive-minded Releford was capable of going back-to-back.
“We did look at the stats and played off of him in the first half,” Crews said. “He wound up hurting us.”
By the time the Billikens adjusted, it was too late. True, they tightened the gap defensively on Releford and limited him to only two second-half points – and those were on a driving two-handed dunk that brought the 10,315 fans in attendance to their feet.
But as the Billiken guards jumped out on Releford, Jayhawk 7-foot center Jeff Withey unleashed inside, ultimately pouring in a game-high 25 points.
“That’s the problem when you play Kansas,” Crews said. “When you plug one hole, another one opens.”
Still, Releford seemed to take it personally that the Billikens didn’t believe he was capable offensively.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” Releford said afterward. “I wasn’t surprised to see them back off because if you look at the statistics, maybe that’s what you do.”
But was Releford offended?
“Of course,” he said. “I’m a player. To see them defend you like that is disrespectful.”
The best way to get even, naturally, is to bury open shots, which is just what Releford did. He hit seven of 13 shots overall, including four of 7 from three-point range.
“If you look at ways to defend us, that’s probably what you’d do, back off (Releford),” KU coach Bill Self said. “So it was nice to see the lid come off for Travis. He really set this up for us tonight. He hit his shots when they backed off, and he helped Jeff get his points in the second half because they came off him to guard Travis.
“It was nice to see our two best defenders be our two leading scorers.”
It was especially a treat for Releford, the senior who has rarely, if ever, been viewed as an offensive weapon during his career at KU.
“A lot of people have been in my ear to keep playing, keep shooting,” he said. “I feel like I can score. I’m a player. I know the shots are going to fall.”
And they certainly did during the Jayhawks’ two-game sweep at the CBE Classic, which made Releford an easy choice as the tournament Most Valuable Player – a nice little bonus here in his hometown of Kansas City where friends and family were on hand.
“It was exciting for me,” he said. “It meant a lot to me and to my family and to the city. It was great.”