MANHATTAN — Don’t cast your Big 12 player of the year ballot just yet.
While the destination for that trophy may very well be decided, Devon Dotson ensured Saturday that which room it ends up in within Kansas basketball dorm McCarthy Hall will come down to the wire.
Dotson scored 25 must-have points in the top-ranked Jayhawks’ 62-58 victory over rival Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum, the sophomore point guard finishing 8 for 11 from the floor. Dotson, who is thought to be a frontrunner for the league player of the year along with teammate Udoka Azubuike, also went 8 of 8 from the free-throw line.
"Any time you come over here or any road game is a great win whenever you get one," KU coach Bill Self said. "Certainly not very happy with how we performed, but certainly ecstatic leaving out of here with a ‘W.’ "
Speaking after the outcome, K-State coach Bruce Weber didn’t limit Dotson’s award ceiling to the conference the Sunflower Showdown adversaries both call home.
"I told the guy before the game, 'I'm really proud: You have a chance to become player of the year in the country,' " Weber said, "and he backed it up today in a big game on the road and made a lot of huge plays."
The outcome extended the Jayhawks’ win streak to 14 games. No other KU player reached double-figure scoring on an afternoon where the potential top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament shot 41.9% from the field and 26.7% from 3-point range.
"We knew it wasn’t going to be easy from the start," Dotson said. "We knew the crowd was going to be into it, and it’s a rivalry game, so we couldn’t come out casual. We knew what it was going to take to win. Credit to them: They showed a lot of toughness and played hard."
Another conference result Saturday could route a different trophy to Lawrence — No. 2 Baylor fell 75-72 at TCU, putting the Jayhawks one-game up in the Big 12 standings with two to play. A victory over the Horned Frogs in Wednesday’s home finale would ensure KU of at least a share of the league crown, its first since its national record-breaking 14-year streak was snapped last season.
It doesn’t appear Jayhawk players are eyeing a split, however.
"We're not looking to share anymore. With them losing, we're trying to take it outright," freshman guard Christian Braun said. "We've got two more left and we're going to go get 'em."
The Jayhawks (26-3, 15-1 Big 12) clung to a one-point lead at halftime of Saturday’s game, the result of their own sloppy play and the Wildcats’ uncharacteristically strong start from deep.
Ranked 242nd nationally with a 31.9% mark on 3-point attempts, K-State (9-19, 2-13) connected on 6 of 12 tries from beyond the arc in the opening period. Cartier Diarra notched a trey on the Wildcats’ first possession, and while the home squad endured a 7-plus-minute scoring drought immediately after that make, it was able to all but erase what was once a nine-point hole.
David Sloan hit his team's sixth 3 to make it a two-point game with 1:50 left before intermission, and Xavier Sneed scored the last three points of the opening frame on free-throw conversions to create the 35-34 score at the half. KU, which lost the 7-footer Azubuike for a chunk of the period to a right ankle injury, got 15 points from Dotson in the first 20 minutes but committed 11 turnovers in that span en route to the airtight margin at the break.
The teams exchanged the lead often across the first 15 minutes of the second half, with the Jayhawks’ poor shooting keeping the last-place and 11½-point underdog Wildcats in the contest — KU missed its first eight 3-point tries of the period. But Braun, a native Kansan, broke that skid with a wide-open corner conversion to give the visitors a 53-48 advantage with 4:52 left.
"Huge. Big shot," Dotson said of Braun’s make. "I think Dave (McCormack) gave him a nice pass and he found the target and knocked it down. That changed the momentum of the game, which led to more things after that. So that was a big shot by Christian."
Dotson continued his brilliant night with a layup through contact and subsequent free-throw conversion that pushed the Jayhawk lead to eight with four minutes left. The Wildcats, meanwhile, were in the midst of another unsightly scoring drought, this one lasting 5:27. Diarra finally ended the skid with a layup that trimmed his team’s deficit to six, and with 25.9 seconds left, DaJuan Gordon drilled the Wildcats’ eighth trey to pull K-State within 60-57.
But KU's most accurate free-throw shooter, Isaiah Moss, hit a pair with 24.7 seconds left, and K-State missed three 3s on the next trip down the court. Makol Mawien capped that possession with a free-throw make, but it came with six seconds left. Down two possessions, there was nothing more the Wildcats could realistically do to come back.
Dotson is now averaging 18.2 points, 4 assists and 2.1 steals on the season, while Azubuike is posting per-game totals of 13.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots.
"Doke got a lot of credit, and deservedly so, last week getting 23 (points) and 19 (rebounds) in a huge game (at Baylor). I mean, he was great. But he had some help. He had guys throwing him the ball and creating angles for him and stuff like that," Self said. "Dot gets 25 on his own for the most part, because we didn’t have a lot of guys offensively step up and help him. So I thought that was huge, what he did, because we didn’t really have much going on at all except for him."
Diarra had 15 points, Mawien 13 and Sneed 13 to lead the way for the Wildcats, who finished a more down-to-Earth 8 for 25 from beyond the arc. K-State’s season will continue with an 8 p.m. Wednesday tilt at Oklahoma State.
Saturday’s game was the first between the two programs since a late-game brawl marred an 81-60 victory for the Jayhawks on Jan. 21 in Lawrence. The Big 12 suspended four players for their actions in that incident — KU’s Silvio De Sousa (12 games) and McCormack (two games) and K-State’s James Love (eight games) and Antonio Gordon (three games).
After Saturday’s national anthem, the teams met at center court and exchanged handshakes in a show of sportsmanship. The Wildcat student section responded with a round of boos.
Self and KU deputy athletics director Sean Lester came up with the idea of the pregame handshake, and K-State agreed to participate in the gesture.
"What happened over there at our place was an embarrassment to both teams, both schools and certainly (there’s) no place for it, but we’ve never had a problem with K-State players and they’ve never had a problem with our players," Self said. "Now we had a player do some silly things or some not-so-bright things at the end of a game before, but not in the battle of competition. I mean, during competition it’s always been classy.
"So certainly I think that was a way to hopefully show people that it’s still just a game, still just a competition. I don’t know how it was received but I think it was received well within the players."
This much is clear, at least: Dotson has at least one fan on the Wildcat bench.
"The thing is he makes the right play," Weber said. "He can score, he can get downhill. ... He's elite."