KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas learned just how effective it can be Tuesday night against Saint Louis when its best defenders also turn out to be its most efficient scorers.
Jeff Withey matched a career high with 25 points, Travis Releford added 23 and the No. 12 Jayhawks rolled to a 73-59 victory in the championship game of the CBE Classic.
Releford had 21 points in the first half, and Withey had 15 in the second, the inside-outside duo carrying the Jayhawks (4-1) despite every effort by the Billikens (2-2) and senior forward Cody Ellis to get back into the game in the waning minutes of the second half.
"Travis was unbelievable the first half. They made the decision not to guard him, so he was unbelievable, made them pay," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "And the reason Jeff had the big second half is they started to guard Travis."
Releford, who had 17 points in the semifinals against Washington State, has long been regarded as the Jayhawks' best perimeter defender, while Withey emerged as one of the Big 12's top interior defenders during a breakout junior season that has set him up for a big final year.
"He worked himself in there pretty tight," Self said. "Jeff was really good at both ends."
The Jayhawks improved to 16-4 all-time at the Sprint Center, the site of this season's Big 12 tournament, and where they'll play Oregon State in a nonconference game next week.
Ellis finished with 19 points for the Billikens. Mike McCall Jr. added 13 points, Cory Remekun had 10 points and Dwayne Evans pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds.
"We had 10 turnovers in the first half, two in the second," Ellis said. "I think our defense definitely picked up in the second half. We have a long way to go, but it was a big step."
The Jayhawks got off to the same kind of start they had the previous night, when they buried Washington State under a 21-5 onslaught. Releford keyed it with back-to-back 3-pointers, and Elijah Johnson's only basket of the first half finished off an opening 14-4 run.
After the Billikens clawed back within four, Releford and Withey combined to score 14 straight points as Kansas established a 28-10 edge and threatened to put the game away.
"They have good players all over the place, so as soon as you plug this hole, another hole opens up," Saint Louis interim coach Jim Crews said. "That's why they're pretty good."
Saint Louis never wavered, though, even after Jordair Jett limped to the locker room late in the half, and despite playing without top scorer Kwamain Mitchell due to a broken foot.
McCall hit a long 3-pointer late in the half, and another triple by Jake Barnett — one of three he had on the night — helped get the Billikens within 39-25 at the break.
Releford was 6 of 11 from the field in the first half; Saint Louis was 6 of 23.
The Billikens also committed 10 turnovers, but despite their sloppiness on offense and their inability to slow down the Jayhawks on defense, they still were within striking distance.
McCall's 3-pointer out of halftime closed the gap to 11, but Withey converted a three-point play off a nifty feed from Kevin Young, and McLemore followed up a 3-pointer with a scooping layup, allowing the Jayhawks to restore a 47-30 cushion with about 17 minutes left in the game.
That's just about when Ellis started to heat up.
His basket with 14:25 left got the Billikens within 50-36, and he converted a three-point play with under 10 to go that made it 57-45. The senior forward from Perth, Australia, then hit back-to-back 3-pointers a couple minutes later to trim the deficit to 10 points.
Kansas kept trying to deliver the knockout blow, and the Billikens kept dodging it.
McCall answered a basket by Releford that threatened to raise the roof at the Sprint Center, which was filled with a pro-Kansas crowd, and then Ellis knocked down another off-balance 3-pointer from the wing to get Saint Louis within 65-56 with just under 4 minutes left in the game.
Withey converted a three-point play, though, and after Ellis misfired from long range, the Jayhawks' 7-footer dunked at the other end to make it 70-56 and effectively put the game away.
"Our two leading scorers are probably our two best defenders, too," Self said, "and I really think if you don't worry about scoring, scoring naturally comes, and that's what happened."