KU outlasts UConn in top-five battle

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) comes away with a steal against UConn during the first half on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas erased any doubts about its status as one of the top teams in the country Friday night, locking down a multifaceted and dynamic UConn offense in the first half and weathering the Huskies’ second-half surge for a 69-65 victory in Lawrence.

The fourth-ranked Huskies had won 24 consecutive nonconference games, including an entire NCAA Tournament, by double digits entering Friday but left Allen Fieldhouse with a single-digit loss.

After initially struggling to build any kind of offensive rhythm in the second half, the Jayhawks embarked on an 11-point run driven by spot-on outside shooting to take a seven-point lead with 4:13 to go.

Kevin McCullar Jr. led the way during that run and the game as a whole, finishing with 21 points and three 3s. KJ Adams Jr. had 18 points and Hunter Dickinson added 15 and nine rebounds.

UConn guard Tristen Newton, of late a triple-double machine, settled for an unbelievable performance in one stat Friday, nearly carrying the Huskies across the finish line with 31 points, but it wasn’t enough before the raucous KU crowd.

“It was nuts out there today, I ain’t going to lie,” Dickinson said. “It’s nuts. It’s something that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Phog Allen, it’s a different environment. There’s a reason why Coach has so many wins and so few losses out there.”

After a deafening pregame intro, the actual game got off to a nervous start as neither team made a field goal in the first 2:25, at which point Newton got a layup to fall at the end of the shot clock. But KU answered a Newton 3 with one from Dajuan Harris Jr., then Harris poked the ball away from Donovan Clingan to set up a Dickinson layup. With Dickinson pumping up the crowd, the Huskies took an early timeout trailing 11-5.

The stoppage only seemed to fire up the Jayhawks further as they scored five straight and forced a second timeout.

But UConn used consistent 3-point shooting to stay close and drew early fouls on Dickinson and McCullar to prevent KU from drawing too far ahead. The Jayhawks stagnated initially with a bench-heavy lineup until Johnny Furphy drained a spot-up 3 and Adams converted a lob by Harris. KU then got a couple of breaks when Cam Spencer only made one of three free throws following a Harris foul and then Elmarko Jackson took a charge against Hassan Diarra with the Jayhawks up 28-19.

KU’s defense continued to hold UConn until the final moments of the shot clock. At the other end, Jackson did some of his best work of the season thus far, leading a number of possessions in transition and banking in a jumper that put KU back ahead 12 with two minutes to go. That double-digit advantage didn’t last, as Newton sank a stepback 3 and then made two of three free throws, cutting the margin to 38-31 despite the stellar defensive half for the Jayhawks.

“I thought the first half we played lights-out, great,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Connecticut, they got it to seven at halftime. I bet you they scored 15 points with under five seconds on the shot clock in the first half. I mean, we guarded them. And of course Newton was unbelievable. He was the best player in the game.”

A close-range shot in the paint by Dickinson cut short an early UConn surge. The teams traded baskets amid a barrage of fouls on both sides until Newton drained yet another off-balance 3 at the shot-clock buzzer to give the Huskies their first lead of the game at 47-46. He sank a more conventional one moments later to make it 50-47 UConn.

“We knew it was going to be a game of runs,” McCullar said. “They’re a really good team, and that’s big-time college basketball.”

The Jayhawks finally snapped a drought of nearly five minutes without a field goal when Furphy connected from the corner with 8:08 to go, then retook the lead with just under six minutes left on a wide-open McCullar 3 that sent the crowd into overdrive. Out of a timeout, Diarra threw the ball away on an errant lob and McCullar pulled off a corner 3 of his own to make it 58-54. Then Dickinson added one more on an assist from McCullar.

“I’m a sniper out there (at the 3-point line),” Dickinson said postgame, with a touch of irony. “That’s what I do.”

And for good measure, the Jayhawks threw in one last critical 3, with McCullar from the corner again with 1:08 to go.

UConn had multiple possessions down one score in the final minute. At one point Jackson threw away a pass with KU leading 66-63, then stripped Diarra on a drive to the hoop, with the ball bouncing off his leg to give possession back to the Jayhawks.

“That was probably the worst offensive play of the year and the best defensive play of the year,” Self said.

The Huskies got another one down 67-65 with the clock running down after Harris missed a pair of free throws. But Spencer was short on a 3 from the wing — “We were fortunate,” Self said — and Adams, who had struggled from the line earlier in the season, made two clinching free throws to seal the win.

The Jayhawks (7-1) will host Kansas City on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Box score


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