KU survives without Releford — but barely

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Fun fact No. 1: With Travis Releford on the floor in the second half, Kansas outscored a salty Temple squad by 10.
Fun fact No. 2: With Releford on the bench with four fouls, the Jayhawks were outscored, at home, by nine.
“I wouldn’t say I brought energy, because I don’t remember me doing anything specific out there,” offered Releford, who collected 14 points Sunday but also battled foul trouble — and the Owls’ Khalif Wyatt — in helping the sixth-ranked Jayhawks rally to a 69-62 win.
“I guess me being out there, we knew we had to speed it up and try to, like, get away from (Temple). Because we didn’t want this to come down to a last-second shot the way they’d been playing all (through the) game, it could have went either way. So we just tried to do our best to just spread the score just a little bit.”
For weeks, even as the 12-1 Jayhawks were crushing people — especially as they were crushing people — wandering eyes on press row turned to March, and the discussion of what this juggernaut might look like, Heaven forbid, without center Jeff Withey (11 rebounds, nine blocks) for any long stretch.
On Sunday, we instead got a glimpse of what Kansas looked like without Releford’s presence in the backcourt. And, much of the time, it wasn’t pretty.
“Just not having Travis out there, that was the biggest thing, to me,” Kansas guard Elijah Johnson said of Releford, who picked up his fourth foul with 15:32 left in the contest and spent the next eight-and-a-half minutes riding the pine. “Not having Trav out there — that’s my partner.
“To have him on the bench like that, that can happen in March . . . so we know we can do it now (without him). … I’m happy they did that to us, where we know we can do it now.”
They can. Sort of. First, let’s give credit where it’s due: Wyatt, who dropped 26 on the Jayhawks and had the Allen Fieldhouse faithful pulling their hair out, is the kind of scorer who can do that to anybody, anywhere.
Kansas tried throwing several different bodies at him. None of them really stuck. Tip your cap.
Second, it was clear that this was a far more assured lineup — comfort-wise, at least — with Releford, Kansas’ defensive stopper, on the floor. After two Wyatt free throws put the Owls up 54-50 with 6:53 left in the contest, coach Bill Self, who’d ridden Releford hard at halftime, stuck his senior wingman back into the contest.
The hosts responded with a 10-3 run, one punctuated by an electric steal-and-dunk from Ben McLemore and capped by two free throws by the day’s unsung hero, power forward Kevin Young (16 points, 10 boards).
But it was Releford who dropped the real dagger, draining a 3-pointer from the wing with 37 seconds left to push Kansas’ lead to 65-58. The Phog erupted, then exhaled.
“That felt like (an NCAA) tournament game,” Withey noted. “They’re a really good team. We didn’t shoot the ball that well, and in the (NCAA) tournament, it feels like that a lot of the time. It comes down to the last four minutes, and (Sunday), we overcame it. Being at home definitely helped, but come March this game will definitely help us.”
And yet the Owls might have exposed the eensiest, weensiest, tiniest of cracks in the Jayhawks’ armor, too. Whether Releford was on the floor or not — but especially when he wasn’t — Temple played the passing lanes hard, especially as the ball was tossed around the backcourt.
“Our turnovers, in large part, led to baskets,” Self said. “I was disappointed in that.”
On several occasions, the Owls forced deflections and quick run-outs, the kind Temple could convert before the Jayhawks (and, specifically, Withey) had a chance to set up their defense. Kansas turned it over 14 times to the Owls’ four; Temple netted 12 points off Jayhawks giveaways on the day.
“We got some steals and some deflections that way (Sunday), but (Kansas) is a really good team, a really well-coached team,” Owls coach Fran Dunphy allowed. “They’re going to make adjustments anytime they can.”
Still, Temple made ‘em work for it. Pushed ‘em in a way they hadn’t seen — not at home, at least — since an 84-78 victory over Oregon State on Nov. 30 at Kansas City’s Sprint Center.
“Every . . . good team is going to have games like this,” Releford said. “And how you end (them) is what your team is like.”
After a 5-0 December in which the Jayhawks’ average margin of victory was 27 points, the Kansas locker room was unanimous: A close one, a nail-biter, was good. Surviving it was even better.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com