COLUMBUS — It’s not supposed to be this easy for a kid playing his first collegiate road game.
Kansas’ Ben McLemore, a redshirt freshman surrounded in the starting lineup by seniors, didn’t let the raucous crowd, the travel or sleeping in a strange bed bother him.
McLemore scored 22 points and No. 9 Kansas proved it was more than just a bully at home by beating seventh-ranked Ohio State 74-66 on Saturday.
“This was great. It was my first time playing in an away game,” McLemore said with a slight smile. “You go up and down the court a little bit, and you get into the game. I kept my intensity, I just played my game.”
For that matter, none of the Jayhawks had yet played a true road game this season. Kansas, which has won nine in a row since losing to Michigan State 67-64 on Nov. 13 in Atlanta, came in 7-0 at home, with two other games played before friendly fans in nearby Kansas City.
They had barely heard a boo all season.
No wonder coach Bill Self was a little worried.
“I had concerns, for sure,” Self said. “Our seniors are good and quality and they’ve been through some things, but against a team that pressures man-to-man and you’re playing with one primarily (ball) handler? That was my biggest concern.”
But the Jayhawks (10-1) weathered a 14-0 run by the Buckeyes (9-2) in the first half that turned the volume up in Value City Arena to 11 on a scale of 10. Then, down in the second half, they held cold-shooting Ohio State without a field goal for more than 10 minutes to take control.
The Buckeyes, who were led by Deshaun Thomas’ 16 points and a career-best 15 by Shannon Scott, hit just nine of 36 shots from the field in the final 20 minutes. For the game, they ended up making only 31 percent of their shots from the field.
No wonder coach Thad Matta looked so stunned when he spoke after the game.
“There was one point in the second half where I turned to the bench and I said, ‘Hey, let’s call a play where we score,’” he said, heavy on the irony. “A lot of it just comes down to you’ve got to put the ball in the basket in a game like this and we couldn’t do it. It became contagious.”
Sixty percent of the starting lineup — star defender Aaron Craft, usually reliable Lenzelle Smith Jr. and post man Evan Ravenel — was a combined 5-of-24 from the field.
Credit the Jayhawks, who play withering man-to-man defense and then are backed up by the incredible wingspan of 7-foot Jeff Withey underneath. Or blame the Buckeyes, who frequently were all alone when they bricked a shot off the rim. But no matter the reason, Ohio State couldn’t buy a bucket for most of the second half.
It was the third victory for the Jayhawks in little more than a year over the Buckeyes (9-2). Kansas won a 64-62 thriller in last year’s NCAA semifinals.
“Today’s probably the best we’ve played against Ohio State in the three games,” Self said. “We were really good except for about a three-minute stretch in the first half when they went on a (14-0) run. Other than that stretch, that was a pretty good 35 minutes we played out there.”
Withey added 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Jayhawks. Elijah Johnson had 13 points and Travis Releford 11.
They weathered Ohio State’s first-half tear by relying on the seniors.
“We have a good group of vets and we’ve been in tough situations before,” Withey said. “We just bounced back. We just had to kind of breathe a little bit.”
Ahead 56-52 with seven minutes left, Kansas pulled away thanks to its McLemore. He hit a pair of foul shots and then flipped in a 15-foot jumper that bounced not once, not twice, but three times before falling through. Off an inbounds pass, McLemore then came off a back pick and dunked to push the lead to 62-52 with 5 minutes left.
The Buckeyes never got closer than six points again.
Self said he found out a little more about McLemore in the game.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’m curious about Ben,” he said. “He’s still trying to figure out how to play. You can tell in late-game situations, he’s played less basketball than anybody that’s as old as him and as good as him around. It’s all new to him. When it all comes naturally to him, he’s going to become terrific.”
In his first road game, he already was.