KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Numerous times since becoming a basketball player, Baylor’s Perry Jones has received cheers after a thunderous dunk or a shot to win a game.
But he’s never heard applause on an airplane.
Or at least he hadn’t until this week.
As soon as Jones set foot on the team charter Tuesday, his Baylor teammates sprung from their seats and gave him a standing ovation. The occasion? Jones, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, was officially on his way to his first Big 12 tournament after being declared ineligible for the event a year ago.
His debut was a memorable one, as Jones finished with a career-high 31 points and 11 rebounds in Baylor’s 82-74 victory over Kansas State on Thursday.
“Our monster came to play today,” Baylor forward Quincy Acy said.
The performance couldn’t have come at a better time for Jones, who is often criticized for playing “soft” and passive. Even though he’s still projected as a top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, Jones is the first to admit that he hasn’t always performed up to his potential during the past few months.
That all changed Thursday.
Dunks on putbacks, 3-pointers, baseline jumpers, reverse layups in traffic ... Jones scored in just about every way imaginable in what was arguably the best performance of his career. Jones’ effort was even more impressive considering it came against one of the Big 12‘s most physical teams.
“I opened up my whole arsenal,” said Jones, who had 21 points at intermission. “I guess I was just in a zone. My teammates told me to go out there and do what I know I can do.”
Jones’ success was uplifting to the Bears, who have watched all season as Jones endured jabs on the Internet and from the media about his less-than-assertive play. Jones also took a hit last season when he was suspended for the Big 12 tournament after the NCAA deemed that his family had received impermissible benefits from an AAU coach while Jones was in high school.
Only recently, in a story on ESPN.com, did Jones say that the “benefit” was a small loan to help make a mortgage payment so he and his family could avoid losing their house and becoming homeless, a scenario they had already encountered several times throughout his childhood.
“To see him smiling out there on the court was a big change,” guard A.J. Walton said. “He’s getting back to being the real Perry Jones.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew agreed.
“Throughout the year he’s received a lot of negativity,” said Drew, whose team improved to 26-5. “We’ve all shared it with him. Everybody loves Perry.”
Except for maybe the Wildcats, who trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half before a flurry of late 3-pointers made the game seem closer than it truly was. Baylor shot 57 percent and outrebounded K-State 32-26.
Kansas State coach Frank Martin called the Bears a “Final Four-contending team.” And forward Jordan Henriquez -- who had 22 points, 14 boards and four blocks -- was highly complimentary of Jones.
“He’s a good player,” Henriquez said. “They all said he’s a pro, and he came out tonight and played like it from the 40-minute mark.”
The question now is whether Jones and his teammates can turn in another banner effort in Friday’s semifinal against regular-season champion Kansas. The Jayhawks own two victories over the Bears by an average of 16 points.
“We can’t lay down,” Acy said. “If we get punched in the face we’ve got to get back up and keep fighting.”
Jones reminded everyone on Thursday that he was more than capable of doing just that. If he plays that way Friday -- and during the NCAA tournament -- the potential is limitless for Baylor.
“He just needs to keep thinking positive things,” point guard Pierre Jackson said. “I think he’s the best player in the nation. I say it every day. He’s the best player in the nation. He showed that today.”