TULSA, Okla. — Frank Mason wasn’t backing down.
Locked in a tit-for-tat tilt with Michigan State in a second-round clash in the NCAA Tournament, an acrobatic layup from the Kansas guard gave the Jayhawks a one-point lead about 12 minutes into the contest.
The Spartans’ Miles Bridges, who to that point already had a couple chippy exchanges with Mason, gave the KU senior two nudges ahead of the ensuing inbound.
The 5-foot-11 Mason, KU’s unquestioned alpha dog, didn’t take too kindly to that, getting in the 6-7 freshman’s face for a testy encounter that officials dashed in to extinguish.
“Yeah, my boy Frank is not going for none of that,” junior guard Devonte’ Graham later said. “He’s not intimidated by anybody. He think he can guard LeBron, so nobody’s going to intimidate him.”
For that matter, neither would KU be pushed around — though it took a little longer for that to become apparent.
The No. 1-seeded Jayhawks turned a close clash with the No. 9-seeded Spartans into a laugher, playing some of their best basketball of the season in the game’s homestretch to earn a 90-70 victory Sunday night at BOK Center.
The victory assures KU is not going home, but in a way, the Jayhawks are still homeward bound. The team will play No. 4 seed Purdue in the Sweet 16 on Thursday at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., just 35 miles east of Lawrence.
The Jayhawks’ “big three” — Mason (20 points), Graham (18) and Josh Jackson (23) — came up huge in the win-or-go-home affair, delivering most down the stretch.
The final margin didn’t indicate what a hard victory it was for the KU, coach Bill Self said, but in turning a one-point contest with 12 minutes to play into a 20-point blowout, the team showed an ability to step on a foe’s neck rarely seen in this otherwise stellar season.
“We’ve played in a lot of close games, maybe more so than what a lot of people think we should have,” Self said. “But I also think those moments have helped us define who we are from an execution and toughness standpoint when the game is on the line on both ends.”
That certainly was the case Sunday.
Holding a 54-53 edge with 12:17 to play, the Jayhawks (30-4) got an and-one layup from Jackson, who kick-started a 15-6 run that delivered a 10-point advantage with 7:30 to play.
The rally was punctuated by a posterizing dunk from Lagerald Vick, but the sophomore guard was called for a technical foul for staring down a Spartans player. That led to a five-point possession — two free throws and a Matt McQuaid 3-pointer — for MSU to make the margin five just three seconds later.
But Vick’s dunk proved to be the fourth of seven straight makes for the Jayhawks. A Landen Lucas dunk, Mason falling layup and Jackson full-court drive and layup completed the 7-for-7 shooting stretch, giving the Jayhawks a 77-65 margin with just over five minutes to play.
“After (the Jackson layup), we played lights out,” Self said. “But that’s a great 10 minutes we played to finish the game. And probably a pretty good 30 (to start), but a really good 10.”
KU only piled on from there. When the reeling Spartans, down 17, needed a timeout with 1:27 left, Self threw a celebratory fist pump and let out a shout, perhaps signaling an early conclusion to the once-competitive contest.
Graham said the Jayhawks were “clicking,” so they ran the same couple plays three or four times in a row late, scoring on virtually all of them. Execution and aggressiveness, he said, were the biggest keys.
“Once (the lead) got to 10, we was in the huddle and saying the same thing — ‘Lock in, put your foot on they throat,’ ” said Graham, who was 7-for-10 shooting with four 3s. “And that’s what we did. We started making shots and getting stops.”
Lucas (10 points, 11 rebounds) rounded out the double-digit scorers for the Jayhawks, who also got good production off the bench from sparingly used forward Dwight Coleby (three points, four rebounds in nine minutes). Bridges’ 22 points and eight rebounds were both team-highs for the Spartans.
“I thought they played an exceptional last eight, 10 minutes,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They were really good, and I thought that was the difference. You know, with 12 minutes left it’s a one-point game. With seven minutes left, it’s a five-point game. And then they just took over. I don’t know if it was the veterans, or a combination of veterans and (our) youth.”
KU nursed a five-point lead, 40-35, at the end of a wild first half that featured 11 lead changes and six tied scores. The Jayhawks led by as many as 11 in the period but fell apart late, including Vick’s foul on a Bridges 3-point attempt with 2.4 seconds left.
Jackson, a Detroit native and former MSU recruiting target, shined against his childhood friend Bridges and the Spartans. He was 9 for 16 from the field in the game, and Self acknowledged Jackson seems to perform better in bigger contests
“I’m not going to coach him that much longer, and the only games we have left are competitive games,” Self said, “so hopefully he’ll stay on a roll.”
Of the testy nature of the game, Self said he didn’t think it was remotely dirty, but there was a chippiness — “For the most part, I did think we kept our composure,” he said.
That rings most true of Mason, who kept his cool during his under-the-basket confrontation with Bridges and, as he so often does, let his on-court play do the talking.
“I think that’s silly if you’re trying to intimidate Frank, because that’s not going to happen very often, especially from a freshman,” Lucas said. “We’ve been through this before. We’ve been through a lot of things. That’s the last thing we’re worried about.
“We feed off him. We don’t have a point guard — it doesn’t matter what his size is — that’s going to back down from anybody.”