By C.J. Matson
ST. LOUIS — He wished he recorded a triple-double, but Jeff Withey was glad he contributed to the Kansas Jayhawks’ 60-57 victory over the North Carolina State Wolfpack, blocking 10 shots in a game that the Jayhawks struggled mightily on offense.
It was a record-matching and record-breaking night for Withey.
His 10 blocks against North Carolina State matched Cole Aldrich’s record for most blocks in a single NCAA Tournament game for a Kansas player. Aldrich blocked 10 shots against Dayton in 2009.
Withey also surpassed Aldrich for the most block shots in a single season for a Kansas player. Aldrich blocked 125 shots during the 2009-10. Withey currently stands at 126 blocks for the season.
“I can now have some bragging rights on Cole,” Withey said proudly.
Because of Kansas’ offensive woes, Withey’s defensive performance ultimately served as the biggest reason why the Jayhawks won the game.
“He bails us out of games,” Thomas Robinson said. “Without Jeff in there blocking these shots, the score could have been a little bit worse without him there.”
Withey was due for a big game. Going into the game against the Wolfpack, he averaged 5.5 points, 3.5 blocks and 5.5 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament. Withey didn’t produce big scoring and rebounding numbers – scoring eight points and snatching five rebounds – but his impact on the defensive end raised his confidence to a new high in the tournament.
“The last couple games I definitely wasn’t myself. ” Withey said. “It feels great to be able to come out. My mindset was to be aggressive. Coach was on me the last couple days of practice to be aggressive, so that’s what I came out trying to do; block shots and alter shots.”
Arguably the biggest play of the game was Withey’s last block. Kansas was ahead 58-57 with fewer than 30 seconds remaining in the game when C.J. Leslie grabbed an offensive rebound after Scott Woods’ missed 3-point shot. He went strong to the basket, but Withey denied Leslie and the Wolfpack, swatting the ball in Tyshawn Taylor’s direction. Taylor converted two free throws after Lorenzo Brown foul him to extend the lead to three points.
“Things were scrambled, they got the offensive rebound, and I don’t even know what happened. I got my hand on the ball,” Withey said.
Withey had a major impact on the game defensively was because North Carolina State played a traditional style of offense that requires its forwards – C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and DeShawn Painter – to play around the rim. Withey is three inches taller than Painter, who is the Wolfpack’s tallest player.
“The big thing is that even though they’re still undersized in their post guys, we could at least play conventional,” coach Bill Self said. “Jeff did a great job of protecting the rim and stage down on fakes and sliding. He was a huge factor.”
For the amount of blocked shots that Withey recorded, he probably altered as many, if not, more shots, making life difficult for the Wolfpack in the paint.
Jeff said he found a rhythm after his first block and knew that the Wolfpack would continue to attack him throughout the game.
“He was huge for us,” Tyshawn Taylor said after the game. “He got 10 static blocks, but I’m sure he probably altered four or five more shots. He made it tough for those guys to even get looks. He does so many things for us down there in that paint, and he was huge for us tonight.”
The NCAA Tournament is about surviving and advancing, and that is exactly what Kansas has done. The Jayhawks survived off of Jeff’s blocked shots against the Wolfpack. The ceiling is incredibly high for them, and yet they’ve been nowhere near it in the tournament.
“We haven’t been playing our best basketball, but I think now is the time,” Taylor said.
If Kansas wants to make a trip to New Orleans next weekend to compete in the Final Four, they need to play their best against North Carolina, a team that was in Kansas’ position last season. Both tradition-rich basketball programs lost in the Elite Eight last season and are once again vying for a spot in the Final Four.
“It’s one of those matchups that you come to Kansas for,” Taylor said. “To play against Carolina is one of those games that you dream about. We’re all excited, and we’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to go out there and play. We’re playing with house money now.”