Travis Releford MVP as KU upends Billikens

Kansas guard Elijah Johnson slaps hands with teammate Travis Releford after a breakaway bucket by Releford against Saint Louis in the first half of the championship game of the CBE Classic, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

Box score


? Kansas University senior Travis Releford slapped hands with teammate Naadir Tharpe, then with a huge smile on his face, trotted to Sprint Center’s center court to receive his glass MVP trophy late Tuesday night.

“I’m excited for it,” said Releford, a 6-foot-6 senior, after being named the CBE Hall of Fame Classic’s top performer after scoring 23 points — 21 the first half — in KU’s 73-59 victory over Saint Louis.

“My teammates supported me throughout the struggles before I got here. I think it means a lot for my family and the city.”

Releford, who grew up in KC and attended Roeland Park’s Bishop Miege High, entered the two-day event 0-for-11 from three and 6-of-23 overall in the Jayhawks’ first three games.

Saint Louis’ defense elected to play off him during the first half, even though he did hit six of seven shots (two of three from three) in KU’s 78-41 first-round victory over Washington State on Monday night.

Did he feel disrespected by the Billikens?

“Of course,” Releford said. “I’m a player. Any player who is defended that way should feel disrespected. They played off. My teammates and coaches continued to tell me to shoot it. That’s what I did.”

He was angry but not stunned at the lack of respect.

“Coming into this game, you look at my shooting percentage on threes … they weren’t too good,” Releford said. “It didn’t surprise me. My teammates told me to step up and shoot the ball. I did that, and the shots fell.”

They fell early and often.

Releford, who scored 17 points in the semifinals, erupted for 21 points vs. Saint Louis as the Jayhawks led, 39-25, into the break. He hit six of 11 shots, including four of six threes as well as five of six free throws while playing all but one minute of the first half.

He scored seven of KU’s first 14 points and 17 of the first 28, with KU leading 28-10 out of the gate. Eight of Releford’s points came in a 14-0 surge that increased KU’s 14-10 lead to 28-10 at 7:31. He had two threes and a driving layup in the run.

“Travis was unbelievable the first half,” KU coach Bill Self said. Releford took just two shots the second half, making one — a spectacular dunk following a behind-the-back feed from Elijah Johnson (nine assists, two turnovers, five points).

“They made a decision not to guard him. He was unbelievable and made them pay. The second half they guarded Travis,” Self added, noting that’s why Jeff Withey was freed for 15 of his career-high-tying 25 points (attained vs. Baylor last season). “It was good for Travis to get the lid off, so to speak.”

Releford said nothing much has changed from the first couple of games, just that the ball has started to go in.

“I mean, a lot of people were in my ear. I just had to continue to play,” Releford said. “I’ve been doing it awhile. The shots are going to fall. If I continue to do what my team needs me to do on the defensive end, the offense will come.”

Withey, who along with Ben McLemore (11 points, six rebounds) made the all tournament team, had four blocked shots and four rebounds to go with 10 first-half points. He finished with seven blocks and five rebounds.

Withey had a highlight-film block of a long three-point attempt by Mike McCall Jr. just before halftime. McCall fouled Withey as he retrieved the ball. Withey hit a pair of free throws — he made 11 of 14 on the night — with 7.9 seconds remaining in the half.

“Jeff was good on both ends,” Self said.

KU’s coach grinned when a reporter asked about Withey muscling the ball into the goal.

“That’s the first time I heard the word ‘muscle’ to speak of Jeff,” Self deadpanned. “He made some good post moves.”

KU led, 39-25, at halftime and had a 57-39 lead with 10:51 to play following a Johnson three. However, Saint Louis (2-2) of the Atlantic 10 cut the gap to nine, 65-56, with 3:45 to play. Withey then converted a bucket and foul shot and dunked off a feed from Johnson, then hit one of two free throws to make it 71-56.

“That’s a good team. Saint Louis is not easy to score on,” Self said. “I’d have been very happy before the game if I had known we’d score 73.”

KU (4-1) will meet San Jose State at 8 p.m. Monday in Allen Fieldhouse.