KU weathers poor start to beat rival Missouri, 73-64

Kansas forward K.J. Adams Jr. (24) gets inside for a shot against Missouri forward Noah Carter (35) and Missouri forward Aidan Shaw (23) during the first half on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

It took the Kansas basketball team almost 10 minutes to get to 10 points Saturday evening. By halftime, the Jayhawks had 41.

A fired-up Missouri squad had come out energized on defense in the opening minutes, cutting off all possible passing lanes to star center Hunter Dickinson, and the Tigers were both aggressive and accurate enough on offense to open up a 15-6 lead.

But KU embarked on a 20-2 run highlighted by eight points from Kevin McCullar Jr., including a stretch of 14 straight points, to enter the half up 41-29.

Missouri never seemed to shake off a protracted shooting slump that stretched deep into the second half. The Tigers briefly got their deficit within single digits on several occasions, but KU executed well enough on offense on an off night to take down its bitter rival 73-64 Saturday afternoon.

“I thought it made for a great atmosphere and a really great basketball game,” said Dickinson, who played in his first Border Showdown. “These are the types of games that you love to play in.”

The Jayhawks were plagued by some of their usual issues (3-for-10 from deep and seven total bench points) but weathered the storm thanks in large part to the performance of KJ Adams (17 points, five assists), who was called upon to run the floor against MU’s press often in the second half.

​​”He’s been our best player the last three games or whatnot,” KU coach Bill Self said, “and certainly I could say the same thing today.”

Self added that “his ball handling in transition has been about as good as anybody’s.”

McCullar also posted 17 points with nine rebounds and four assists despite a poor shooting night. The Tigers limited Dickinson for most of the night by sagging off Adams and Elmarko Jackson and placing more defenders in the lane, but he still managed a 13-point, 16-rebound double-double. KU outrebounded MU 42-25 and outscored the Tigers in second-chance points 17-0.

The Tigers’ guards Sean East II (a game-high 21 points, plus six assists) and Nick Honor (17 points) gave the Jayhawks trouble all evening long.

An Honor 3-pointer and Aidan Shaw dunk gave MU an early advantage as KU needed 3:35 before its first field goal on a hard-fought drive by Adams. East drained a 3 in transition, and Tamar Bates hit another one not long after as the Tigers’ advantage climbed to nine points before Self took a timeout.

KU responded midway through the half with a brief surge of energy that included an alley-oop from Dajuan Harris Jr. to McCullar and a 3-pointer off the bench by Nick Timberlake. The Jayhawks struggled to defend East, who scored from everywhere on the floor, but the Tigers’ own defense was far too loose on Adams, who sank a pair of floaters before an up-and-under by McCullar cut the deficit to 27-25.

“A lot of people are going to do that, started doing that,” Adams said. “I just have to make shots. I have to make them guard me. I guess I just have to hit those shots until they guard me.”

MU called timeout to quiet a resurgent Allen Fieldhouse crowd, but Connor Vanover came up empty on a 3-point attempt and Parker Braun finished a game-tying lob from Harris. The 7-foot-5 Vanover redeemed himself with a layup that Braun goaltended, but McCullar found Jackson for a 3 through contact that he turned into a 4-point play. That put KU up 31-29 for its first lead since 2-0.

“I want to see the next time a team leads in this arena for 14 minutes to start the game,” Missouri coach Dennis Gates said. “I don’t know when that will take place.”

The Tigers then went cold on a long string of ugly attempts from deep. KU was able to extend its run all the way to 11-0 before Tamar Bates fouled McCullar on a 3-point attempt with one second remaining in the first half. He made all three free throws and the Jayhawks went into the break with a wholly unanticipated 12-point lead.

“We gave up seven points off 3-point jump shots (between Jackson’s play and McCullar’s),” Gates said, “and this team, this year, isn’t a 3-point-shooting team for Kansas.”

Both offenses came out of the half rather shaky as the margin stayed constant, although KU’s freshmen started to pick up repeated and sloppy fouls.

“The game had no flow, it had no rhythm,” Self said. “If we’re playing well, we kind of play with some rhythm offensively.”

Missouri briefly drew closer on a jumper by Anthony Robinson II, who then stole the ball from Harris. He looked to have a free fast-break layup before Adams charged down the court for a thunderous block, which then set up Dickinson for a 3-point play at the other end.

“They come to our place,” Adams said, “we have to make sure they don’t have easy buckets like that breakaway.”

A brief attempt at full-court pressure did not particularly pay dividends for the Tigers, as Adams broke it singlehandedly and then found Braun for another dunk to make it 54-36 in KU’s favor. What did give MU a spark, though, was the return of Vanover off the bench, as he scored seven points in less than two minutes as part of a 10-2 run.

Honor then hit a 3 out of a timeout to bring the Tigers within single digits at 57-49, but the clock was not on Missouri’s side. MU managed just a pair of free throws on 2-for-4 shooting in the next three and a half minutes.

The Tigers fouled early and often down the stretch, and KU’s starting lineup took care of business, finishing off the 73-64 victory.

The Jayhawks (9-1) will take on Indiana next Saturday in their first true road game of the season.

Box score


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