Agbaji’s lob, Lightfoot’s spark help No. 6 Kansas cruise past TCU, into Big 12 title game
Kansas City, Mo. — In the moment, Kansas senior Mitch Lightfoot’s face left little doubt as to how he felt about teammate Ochai Agbaji’s gravity-defying, one-hand slam that served as the exclamation point on sixth-ranked Kansas’ 75-62 Big 12 semifinal win over TCU.
With his eyes wide and mouth agape, Lightfoot, like thousands of other basketball fans inside T-Mobile Center on Friday night, clearly could not believe what he just had seen.
Roughly an hour later, Lightfoot’s perspective on the Agbaji dunk had not changed a bit.
“Insane,” Lightfoot said, eyes still bulging from his head. “He might be the highest jumper off of lobs I think I’ve ever seen. Like, it’s insane. Incredible.”
Here’s the funny thing about Agbaji’s high-flying act on Friday night. Earlier in the game, when he was whistled for an over-the-back foul on the offensive glass after a KU miss, Agbaji spent some time trying to explain to the officials that he actually jumped over the guy.
If only the dunk had come before that, they might have believed him.
The highlight of the night — if not the year — came off of an inbounds pass under the basket from point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. and put Kansas up 69-50 with 7:42 to play. It set off a full-on party from the floor to the bench to the heavily-pro-Kansas crowd.
Fifth-seeded TCU had not been close to Kansas since early in the first half, and the Frogs never really threatened after the dunk. So, it was fitting that Agbaji, a player from Kansas City who has proven time and again this season that he was worthy of the title of best player in the Big 12, was the one who unofficially put the game away.
Even more fitting was the way both Agbaji and Kansas coach Bill Self reacted to the dazzling dunk while discussing it after the victory.
“It kind of happened so fast it didn’t really set in until I was just sitting there at half court and everyone was just going crazy,” a beaming Agbaji said from the podium. “I just watched the replay of it (in the locker room) and it was crazy. So that was a really good pass by Juan.”
Self agreed, while deadpanning: “We’ve run it a few times.”
One of those times came Thursday, in KU’s 24-point quarterfinal win over West Virginia.
“And Juan didn’t throw it,” Self said. “I got onto him pretty good for not throwing it. (Agbaji) was more open yesterday than today, but Juan gave a perfect pass and then, of course, Och made a pretty good finish.”
Up to that point, in what turned out to be a runaway win for a Kansas team closing in on a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament, the highlight of the game had come from Lightfoot.
Not only did the sixth-year senior show off another strong offensive game in the paint, but he also reminded everyone that he had a little range, as well. His 3-pointer from the top of the key that made the KU lead 63-45 came on his first attempt of the season and was the 13th 3-point make of his career.
Some Kansas fans bantered on social media about over which was the bigger highlight. But for Lightfoot, the answer was clear.
“His lob, for sure,” he said. “Are you kidding me? Anybody can hit a 3. But I don’t think anybody else can jump to 12 and a half feet in the air and dunk that.”
That didn’t make Lightfoot’s night any less impressive.
The senior from Gilbert, Arizona, finished the night with a career-high 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, showing off his hook shot down low and providing Kansas with a significant offensive presence from the 5 spot throughout the night.
“Mitch has become an offensive weapon for us,” Self said after Friday’s win.
Feeling brave after drilling his first 3-point attempt, Lightfoot pulled another one, from almost the same spot, later in the game, but it missed off the back iron.
Lightfoot said the idea to pull the trigger came from a conversation with his father, Matt, on Thursday night. He said his dad’s message was simple: “Why don’t you just shoot one? They don’t ever guard you?”
“And I was like, ‘Eh, might as well,'” Lightfoot said. “I was feeling it.”
While KU’s offense certainly put on the kind of show Kansas fans have come to expect in this environment, it was the Jayhawks’ defense that gave them the freedom to do so.
From the start, KU’s in-your-face, harassing pressure on the ball forced the Horned Frogs to retreat rather than attack and kept TCU from getting comfortable with anything it wanted to do offensively.
After taking a 10-9 lead on a 3-pointer from Christian Braun, the Jayhawks forced a series of TCU miscues on four consecutive possessions.
First was a travel by TCU guard Micah Peavy. That was followed by back-to-back shot-clock violations and Damion Baugh stepping out of bounds in front of the Kansas bench with one second showing on the shot clock on the fourth possession.
“Our first-shot defense today was great,” Lightfoot said. “That’s a tribute to the guards. Those guys were so turned up on defense.”
That stretch, along with 56% shooting through the game’s first 10 minutes — and 63% for the first half as a whole — helped Kansas build a 21-12 lead.
More importantly, it brought the pro-Kansas T-Mobile Center crowd fully into the action.
Nine of KU’s points in that stretch came from different players on drastically different plays.
Picking up where he left off in the quarterfinal win over West Virginia, Lightfoot connected on his first two jump hooks of the night on back-to-back possessions.
Agbaji then followed with the first of his two lob dunks in the sequence. The first, off of a sweet pass by Remy Martin (10 points on 10 shots with three assists in 19 minutes), was a rim-rattler that energized the crowd. The second, on a slightly underthrown pass from Christian Braun, featured Agbaji barely getting a hand on it but watching the ball fall through the net as he came down.
Agbaji hit the free throw that followed, and Kansas led 21-12.
TCU cut the KU lead to 21-16 with back-to-back buckets after Agbaji’s high-flying act. But a 13-3 KU run blew the game open after David McCormack connected at the free throw line, Agbaji hit a couple of jumpers and Joe Yesufu drained a 3-pointer from the wing.
Later in the half, with KU leading by 17, Braun’s rejection of a pull-up jumper by TCU guard Mike Miles Jr. led to another TCU shot-clock violation on one end and Lightfoot’s third jump hook of the half on the other.
While Self was thrilled with his team’s start and defensive intensity early for the second game in a row, he said he thought the Jayhawks “caught a break” in facing a TCU team that had to expend so much energy to come back from 20 points down to beat Texas on Thursday night.
“I thought that was the difference early,” Self said. “But I thought our defensive intensity was better than in the other two games (against TCU this season). Especially in the first half.”
KU led 44-30 at halftime after leading by as many as 19 late in the first half before extending to a game-high of 22 (75-53) late in the second half before TCU hit a few shots late to set the final margin.
Friday’s win puts Kansas back in the Big 12 championship game for the first time since 2018, when the Jayhawks topped West Virginia in the title game during their most recent Final Four season.
KU will be playing in its 15th Big 12 Conference title game in 25 years of Big 12 tourneys and its 23rd conference title game of any kind.
Top-seeded Kansas will face the winner of the second semifinal game between No. 3 seed Texas Tech and No. 7 seed Oklahoma at 5 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.