KU men’s basketball survives EIU’s furious upset bid, wins 71-63

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) and Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) look to trap Eastern Illinois guard Nakyel Shelton (3) during the first half on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

At some points early Tuesday night, the Jayhawks passed the ball so easily it looked like Eastern Illinois wasn’t even on the court; at others later on — the ones that will undoubtedly last in their memory — they made the sorts of uncharacteristic errors that plagued them during their turnover-prone showing at the Maui Invitational.

It was an off-and-on sort of night, more off than on, for the Kansas men’s basketball team against an undermanned foe, and by the end of it the Jayhawks needed everything they had to take down a spirited EIU squad, 71-63 at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Panthers, who were nearly 40-point underdogs and have never beaten a ranked team in their history, roared out of the halftime break. They responded to a quick Hunter Dickinson jumper with a 15-2 run, led by junior guard Dan Luers, that got them as close as 42-40.

“They play together, they play the right way, they play fast,” guard Kevin McCullar Jr. said. “Yeah, they came out with a lot of energy.”

The Jayhawks didn’t pull away until Dajuan Harris Jr. leapt to knock away a post entry pass by Sincere Malone and McCullar finished a transition dunk that made it 68-61 with 1:28 remaining.

“We were fortunate that we made some good plays down the stretch to keep them at (a) distance,” KU coach Bill Self said. He added later that the team had been tired coming off the Maui Invitational and that he had been expecting the game to be more difficult than many anticipated.

Dickinson was excellent as usual with 25 points and 13 rebounds, but the rest of the Jayhawks didn’t pick up the slack until they were absolutely required to in the second half. McCullar finished with 18 points after a sluggish start.

EIU guard Tiger Booker led his team with 20 points as Nakyel Shelton and Kooper Jacobi added 14 apiece for the relentless Panthers.

“I think we just probably let them get too comfortable,” Dickinson said.

KU (6-1) had looked most like itself in the opening minutes, vexing the EIU defense with a variety of interplay between Dickinson and McCullar — pick and rolls, backdoor cuts and more. After one offensive rebound by Dickinson, the Panthers left Elmarko Jackson wide open under the basket for a dunk, pushing the Jayhawks’ lead to an early 8-0 and forcing a timeout. Following the stoppage, Booker connected on a deep jumper to end the shutout.

KU’s size advantage was apparent as the 7-foot-2 Dickinson, fresh off a 20-rebound showing against Tennessee in Honolulu, had seven rebounds in the first six minutes.

The Panthers settled down, though, and only allowed one field goal in the next five minutes as they drew as close as 10-7 with Dickinson and McCullar on the bench. An Adams floater and Johnny Furphy 3-pointer helped the Jayhawks briefly reassert their advantage, but Self called timeout after two 3s from Shelton cut EIU’s deficit to 17-13 with 9:17 left in the first half.

Nick Timberlake gave KU a spark when he drained a 3 and then created a pull-up jumper a moment later. The Jayhawks, already the national leaders in assists per game, displayed crisp ball movement around the perimeter to create a series of open opportunities from deep as they built their lead back to double digits.

Adams finished a long-range lob from Harris to get the crowd going with three minutes left in the half. KU looked to enter the break up 16 before Booker caught his own blocked shot and flung up a prayer from beyond the arc. He drained it and reduced the Jayhawks’ halftime advantage to 38-25.

KU sleepwalked through its return to the court, as Luers suddenly began scoring inside and out. The Jayhawks missed five straight shots and committed an offensive foul before Adams finished another lob to restore some calm to the assembled fans — only for the Panthers to narrow the margin once again on a Jacobi 3-pointer.

“We don’t do a good job yet of playing our man before (they) catch it,” Self said. “So we’ll let them catch the ball where they want to and then close out and then we’re nervous about getting beat and then there’s space for them to get the shot off.”

KU went up 55-49 and then forced a five-second violation out of an EIU timeout, but Shelton struck back with another 3. The Panthers had an answer for every KU score and even got as close as one point away on a pair of Booker free throws.

After Dickinson missed a hook shot with the Jayhawks up 64-61, Shelton slipped and got called for traveling to deprive EIU of a chance to tie, and on the next play Dickinson finished through contact.

“They’re smart, they know what they are doing, and we just didn’t have an answer for it,” EIU coach Marty Simmons said postgame. “They defended us well on the other end, we made some mistakes, and I tip my cap to them.”

The Jayhawks will host No. 4 UConn in a battle of top teams Friday at 8 p.m.

“It’ll be a fun one,” Dickinson said. “It’s always great to go against another great big man (UConn’s Donovan Clingan), but I feel like I got a great group of guys that I feel like will really help me. As a player, as a competitor, you want to go against the best of the best.”

Box score


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