Kansas rallies from double-digit deficit to survive Kentucky in Champions Classic

photo by: AP Photo/Erin Hooley

Kansas head coach Bill Self shouts from the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Chicago.

Chicago — Kentucky was missing three seven-footers, two injured and one not yet eligible, in the paint, and that disparity was apparent from the opening minutes Tuesday night at the United Center, as Hunter Dickinson scored practically at will — at least, whenever he was able to snag the ball in the paint.

The Wildcats got better at denying entry passes to Dickinson as the night went on, though, and their young, high-scoring guards vexed the Jayhawks at times in the first half. Freshman guard Rob Dillingham made four 3-pointers and then set up another for fifth-year senior Antonio Reeves in just over two minutes to give Kentucky a sizable lead in the first half.

Hard-fought finishes by KJ Adams Jr. gave Kansas a spark later on and even earned the Jayhawks back a brief advantage after they trailed by as many as 14. But it was point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. — who had previously opened his season with a game in which he did not take a shot — who rescued KU with his offense down the stretch, accounting for eight points in the span of a minute to erase a Kentucky lead and guide the Jayhawks to an 89-84 win Tuesday.

Dickinson completed one of the best performances of his decorated college career with 27 points and 21 rebounds, and Harris put up a career-high 23 points.

“That was big-boy basketball,” Harris said. “That’s always a fight, a dog fight every time we play them. But they, I think they wanted me to beat them, they left me open, and then I just had to step up and make the shot.”

Freshman guard Jamari McDowell entered for his first action of the night late, played some tough defense and sank a pair of free throws to seal the game after Reed Sheppard missed a potential game-tying 3.

Kevin McCullar Jr., despite a quiet offensive night, finished with a triple-double — 12 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists — just the third in KU history, and the second for any team in the Champions Classic since its creation (after Denzel Valentine’s in 2015). The veteran Reeves led the young Wildcats with 24 points and Dillingham, Adou Thiero and Sheppard all reached double figures.

KU came in with a more experienced roster and initially seemed unfazed by the big stage of the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks opened the scoring when Harris, following a brief moment of hesitation as though he couldn’t believe how open he was, drained a 3. Adams sank a hook shot and Dickinson, who was unstoppable on the glass early, banked in a putback as KU opened a 9-0 lead.

But Thiero rattled in a 3 to stop the bleeding for the 17th-ranked Wildcats, Tre Mitchell scored on both a 3-point play and a more conventional transition 3-pointer, and the Jayhawks got repeatedly sloppy on the break to allow Kentucky to tie the game at 11-11.

KU briefly seized the momentum back before back-to-back 3s from Sheppard off the bench gave Kentucky its first lead of the night. The Wildcats consistently benefited from good ball movement on the outside to create open looks from deep. It all came to a head when Dillingham led the 15-5 run that put the Wildcats up and forced a timeout by Bill Self.

The Jayhawks could do little to stem the tide as halftime approached, as a string of fouls against KU’s key players allowed Kentucky to extend its lead as wide as nine points, then eventually to double digits on a fierce putback dunk by Thiero.

KU seemed to dissolve into utter disarray when it lost control of a defensive rebound on a missed free throw by D.J. Wagner. But Thiero fouled Dickinson, the center made a pair of free throws, and after a Dillingham turnover he drained a 3 at the halftime buzzer to cut the deficit to 48-41 at the break, allowing the Jayhawks to salvage some momentum.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a 20 and 20 before,” Dickinson said, when all was said and done. “But obviously, when you got the best PG in the nation, the best ‘3’ in the nation, they really help me out a lot.”

Added Harris: “We need him to be a monster. That’s why we got him.”

Harris and Dickinson continued to fuel the KU offense after the break, as an avalanche of fouls turned the game into a stop-and-start affair, one that gradually began to favor the Jayhawks due to Adams’ heroics.

“KJ’s the most athletic guy in the country, I feel like, when he’s turned up and playing hard,” McCullar said, “and that’s every possession he’s out there.”

McCullar gave KU a lead at 64-62 when he finished a drive between a pair of Kentucky defenders, and the teams traded back-and-forth close-range buckets and free throws down the stretch, with practically no one’s shooting stroke on point.

A tough couple plays for freshman Elmarko Jackson — a foul on Antonio Reeves in transition that led to a 3-point play, then getting beaten off the dribble by Reed Sheppard — allowed Kentucky to reestablish a narrow lead. Then Adams fouled out, robbing the Jayhawks of their momentum — until Harris stepped up.

The No. 1 Jayhawks (3-0) will take part in the Maui Invitational — occurring in Honolulu this year — beginning when they face host Chaminade, a Division II school, Monday night at 8 p.m.

Box score


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