‘I just did it for my mom’: KJ Adams delivers pivotal performance in win over UConn

Kansas forward K.J. Adams Jr. (24) is congratulated as he leaves the court following the Jayhawks’ win over UConn on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

In fitting fashion, forward KJ Adams Jr. did the honors by clinching No. 5 Kansas’ hard-fought 69-65 victory over No. 4 UConn on Friday night in Allen Fieldhouse. Adams netted both free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining to put the finishing touches on another marquee win for the 7-1 Jayhawks, and he made no effort to hide what that moment meant to him.

A big smile flashed across his face as he made his way to the other end of the floor, fist pumping in celebration. As soon as the final buzzer went off, Adams bent over and let out a big roar, before standing back up and hoisting his arms above his head.

The ESPN broadcast then grabbed Adams for a postgame interview, and he acknowledged the significance of Friday’s performance. He would hop on a plane that night to travel to Austin, Texas, to attend his mother’s funeral the following day. Yvonne Adams recently died after years spent battling with bladder cancer.

“I just did it for my mom,” Adams said in his interview with ESPN. “Everything I do right now is for her. It’s just her watching over me and her helping me with this.”

Adams played a pivotal role to help end UConn’s streak of 24 consecutive nonconference wins by double digits. He scored a season-high 18 points to go along with five rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal. Adams finished 6-for-9 from the free-throw line, which included three freebies in the final 30 seconds while the Huskies were trying to send him to the charity stripe.

“He was playing for a lot more than Kansas tonight,” KU head coach Bill Self said. “I thought KJ was great.”

Self, who said the coaching staff was traveling to the funeral on Saturday, went into even more detail on Adams’ impact during his postgame message with the team in the locker room. In a video shared by the official Kansas men’s basketball team account on X, Self choked up as he credited Adams for the victory.

“This game belonged to one person,” Self told his team. “Can you imagine the stress that he’s been under? For him to play for you guys the way he did tonight, knowing he’s getting on a plane to go say goodbye tomorrow morning at 11 a.m., wow. Stud. Stud. So you guys put your arms around that cat.”

In a lot of ways, Friday’s performance encapsulated what Adams means to his team on a night where the Jayhawks needed him the most. And perhaps on a night where Adams needed it the most.

Energy guy. Glue guy. Versatile. Those were all descriptors used for Adams during the postgame presser by Self, Kevin McCullar Jr., and Hunter Dickinson. And they are all true.

For 40 minutes, Adams brought the energy needed to knock off the defending national champions. Each one of his thunderous dunks caused a raucous Allen Fieldhouse to fully erupt, the first of which took place at the nine-minute mark in the opening half on an alley-oop from point guard Dajuan Harris Jr.

Adams’ second slam occurred in the second half, when he had an open path to the basket on a slip screen. Harris hit him in stride, and Adams viciously flushed it down with two hands.

“I feel like I’m the energy guy for the team,” Adams said. “Once I start doing that and start showing a little bit of emotion, I think that’s what gets us going. If I have to do that for 40 minutes, I’m going to do that for 40 minutes.”

Adams’ teammates confirmed his assessment.

“When he’s fist pumping and dunking and putting his head on the rim, that turns me up,” McCullar said.

But Adams’ versatility can’t be mentioned enough. The 6-foot-7 junior forward played out of position all last year, serving as a small-ball center on a team that lacked size. Now that the 7-foot-2 Dickinson has transferred in, Adams is able to slide down to power forward.

That said, Adams is quick enough to stay in front of guards while also having the strength to handle a defensive assignment against a post. UConn learned that the hard way, as its offensive system is built on creating switches off-ball and taking advantage of mismatches.

“It’s tough with Adams,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “He’s a big, strong guy, but he flies around like a guard. It’s hard to take advantage of even guard on the ball matchups with Adams at the four and a ball screen, because the guy has unique movement and he’s so strong.”

One of the best examples of this occurred late in the first half, with the Huskies trailing by a dozen. Cam Spencer got a switch onto Adams after a high-ball screen late in the shot clock. Adams kept Spencer in front with the clock winding down, only for the Huskies guard to settle for a turnaround jumper that clanked off the front of the rim. Adams corralled the defensive rebound for good measure.

“The thing about KJ defensively is that he’s so strong that he’s hard to screen,” Self said. “When you do screen, he can run through it. We don’t really have anyone else that has that physical capability that can do that. Yeah, he was a problem tonight.”

According to the advanced metrics on the official stat broadcast, Adams posted the highest net rating on Kansas with a plus-6.7. He only allowed 12.8 points on the defensive end, producing a team-best game score of 17.1.

To put it simply, it was easily Adams’ best statistical performance to date. It very well could end up being his best showing when the season concludes. But Adams’ impact has always been bigger than the numbers, and Friday’s monumental game helped illustrate just that.

“He affects the game in so many ways,” Dickinson said. “You can’t really put him in a position. He’s just a basketball player. He does everything good. He’s a Swiss army knife. He’s able to do so many different things for us.”


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