Losing skid snapped: No. 9 Kansas out-toughs Kentucky in 77-68 win at Rupp Arena
Lexington, Kentucky — It was tough defense and all-out hustle that got No. 9 Kansas the lead, but three massive 3-pointers from three different Jayhawks put the game away during a 77-68 win over Kentucky on Saturday at Rupp Arena.
One came from Gradey Dick after a pump fake on the wing. One came from Jalen Wilson in the corner. And the last came from Kevin McCullar Jr. as the shot-clock buzzer sounded.
“They made big shots for us,” KU junior Dajuan Harris Jr. said after the win. “They’re big time players. That’s what they do.”
Added Kentucky coach John Calipari after the loss: “Three, three, three; that was the game.”
The victory, which came in the final edition of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, snapped Kentucky’s four-game winning streak and also put an end to KU’s three-game losing streak. It sends the Jayhawks back into Big 12 play next with a much-needed dose of momentum.
“We talked about it every day,” Harris said of the losing streak. “We needed this win for our confidence, but it was against Kentucky, so we really wanted to win this game.”
That it came after being embarrassed by these same Wildcats at home a season ago was merely a bonus. What meant more to the Jayhawks was how they got the win.
KU played loose, free and tough on both ends of the floor, out-rebounding the Wildcats 34-29 and limiting one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams to four offensive boards and zero second-chance points.
“That was definitely an emphasis this week,” said McCullar after recording 11 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes. “We knew it wasn’t just going to be the bigs, KJ (Adams), Zuby (Ejiofor) and Ernest (Udeh) down there banging on Oscar (Tshiebwe) and having to get rebounds. They boxed him out and that opened it up for us to get rebounds and we took advantage of that.”
Said Calipari: “They were more physical than us, which surprised me.”
Kansas coach Bill Self said the Jayhawks hoped they could attack the Wildcats in the pick-and-roll, which worked throughout the night. But the game plan on the glass was a little different.
“We were just praying on the rebounding stuff,” he said. “We did a great job defensive rebounding. We haven’t rebounded the ball like that in a while.”
The Jayhawks made eight of their first 14 shot attempts and two of their first four 3-pointers. But that merely allowed them to keep pace, as the Wildcats (14-7 overall, 5-3 SEC) hit nine of their first 13 shots.
Still, at the 11-minute mark of the half, KU trailed by just one following an old-fashioned three-point play by McCullar.
The Jayhawks took their first lead on a bucket by Adams midway through the first half. Kentucky quickly answered with a bucket by Tshiebwe to go ahead 22-21. Adams (17 points on 8-of-10 shooting in 24 minutes) added another bucket and a free throw on the next possession and the Jayhawks never trailed again the rest of the night.
It definitely qualified as another slow start for the Jayhawks, and it likely felt worse than it actually was, given the intensity in the building, both on the court and in the stands.
But the Wildcats never got too far away from the Jayhawks and Kansas (17-4 overall, 5-3 Big 12) was able to stay right in the thick of the game.
Wilson’s back-to-back buckets erased a 4-0 deficit. And Harris hit two 3-pointers — both on catch-and-shoot decisions without hesitation — in the game’s first 7 minutes. The second gave the Jayhawks a 16-15 lead with 13:13 to play in the first half.
“Huge. Huge,” said Wilson, who led KU with 22 points and drew praise from his team as an “All-American” and “the best player in the country” after the win. “All week we were emphasizing him scoring. When he’s in that pick-and-roll, he’s so dangerous. When he’s playing like that, our offense is just so much better.”
Self joked after the game that he told Harris he had to make three 3-pointers in this one. The KU point guard fell one short, but the victory more than made up for it.
“Yeah, I owe him,” Harris joked. “I missed like three in the second half. I thought they were good, but they were long. I didn’t have no legs. But I’ll make up for it.”
The Jayhawks twice led by nine in the first half, on an and-one basket by McCullar after he recorded his eighth rebound of the first half with 2:31 to play and again on a Harris lob to Ernest Udeh Jr., who played key minutes with Adams on the bench with foul trouble.
KU led 41-34 at halftime and then opened the second half with a burst of energy, scoring easy buckets on quick, crisp passing that led to uncontested shots at the rim.
But the Wildcats played to their size advantage, as well. Back to back buckets by Tshiebwe cut the KU lead to four (47-43) and inspired Self to call timeout.
KU responded with baskets by Wilson and Adams on the next two possessions but then hit a bit of a wall with three straight empty trips. That allowed the Wildcats to trim the lead to one (51-50) on a 3-pointer from Cason Wallace, but the Jayhawks answered that 5-0 Kentucky run with a 5-0 run of their own.
Wilson’s 3-pointer from the top of the key calmed down the crowd and Dick scored an easy bucket at the rim in transition to put Kansas back up by six.
Throughout the second half, the energy in the building reached a frantic feel every time the Wildcats cut the Kansas lead down to four. And each time, with the buzz swelling around them, the Jayhawks answered on the offensive end to maintain control and quiet the crowd.
Kentucky at one point down the stretch cut KU’s lead to one possession on five consecutive trips down the floor, but the Jayhawks staved off the comeback attempt each time to walk away with a big win.
KU now leads Kentucky by seven games (2,374 to 2,367) in all-time wins for the top spot in all of college basketball. That means as much to these players as it does to the KU fan base.
“We’re not the biggest team, we don’t have a lot of depth and there’s some things that we don’t do great,” Self said. “But our guys do compete and they fight. There’s just a lot of pride with them. If you can have all five starters play well on the same night, you’ve got a chance and that’s what happened to us.”
Next up, Kansas returns home on Tuesday for a rematch with No. 5 Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse.