KU-Kentucky Notebook: Freshmen big men step up big for 9th-ranked Jayhawks

Kansas coach Bill Self directs the team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Lexington, Kentucky — When sophomore forward KJ Adams picked up his second foul with eight minutes still to play in the first half of Kansas’ 77-68 win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday, the Jayhawks were forced to go to young big men Zuby Ejiofor and Ernest Udeh Jr. off the bench.

The two freshmen did not disappoint.

In 11 minutes combined, the two biggest bodies on KU’s roster made all three of their shot attempts, grabbed three rebounds and combined for six points.

More than that, they played hard and without overthinking anything.

Some of that might have been because of the challenge they were facing, with UK big man Oscar Tshiebwe leaning on them on both ends of the floor and providing Kentucky with a nearly immovable force in the paint.

But the Wildcats struggled to make Tshiebwe’s presence count. He finished the half with just three shot attempts, two fouls and one turnover. More importantly, neither he nor any of his teammates grabbed a single offensive rebound in the first half.

Competing on the glass was a huge point of emphasis for the Jayhawks coming into this game, and Kansas outrebounded the Wildcats 21-13 in the first 20 minutes of play. For the game, KU outrebounded Kentucky 34-29, including 8-4 on the offensive glass.

On offense, Udeh provided the Jayhawks something they had been missing since early in the season. Twice he caught and dunked a lob from Dajuan Harris Jr. after a high ball screen at the top of the key. It was the same action that the Jayhawks had used Adams in for many of his most successful offensive games, but Udeh provided a much bigger target for Harris to throw to.

Ejiofor exited after picking up his second foul and was not on KU’s bench for the rest of the half or to start the second half. A KU spokesperson said at halftime that Ejiofor turned his ankle. A couple of minutes into the second half, he returned to the bench to watch with his teammates.

Udeh checked into the game for Adams six minutes into the second half. He played just five minutes and did not score, but his first-half impact played a huge role in Kansas’ victory.

Pregame heckle fest

In their seats nearly two full hours before tipoff, the Kentucky student section had more than a little fun during Saturday’s pregame shoot-around.

Jalen Wilson was the first Jayhawk to hear their wrath. He was the first KU player on the floor, and he was all alone for about two minutes. That gave the UK students time to track and react to his every shot. He didn’t give them much, draining five 8-footers in a row from the baseline right in front of them. But after his first miss, they roared like Kentucky had just won the game. Wilson couldn’t help but smile.

Eventually, Wilson’s teammates joined him and the Wildcats’ fans were all over them, too — particularly freshman Gradey Dick. They taunted him about his appearance and, of course, had more than a few chants involving his last name.

Adams, Harris, Udeh and even walk-on Dillon Wilhite also were called out individually.

The final pregame shot at the Jayhawks happened when they took the floor for the second time and the Wildcats blared George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” love ballad over the loudspeakers followed by Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” as opposed to the hip-hop and rap hype tracks that played while the Wildcats were on the floor.

The final Challenge

Saturday was the final year for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, and therefore the final Kansas-Kentucky matchup in the event’s 10-year history.

This season was the seventh consecutive year in which all 10 matchups between Big 12 and SEC teams took place on the same day. In the last nine challenges, the Big 12 led 4-3-2, with an overall winning percentage of 53.9%. The Big 12 won better than half of the 10 matchups in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019.

KU and Kentucky played each other in five of the 10 SEC/Big 12 Challenges. In past years, KU also played twice against Florida (1-1), twice against Tennessee (1-1) and once against Texas A&M (1-0).

While this is the end of the midseason challenge matchup between these two college basketball powerhouses, it’s hardly the end of their head-to-head matchups.

In fact, Kansas and Kentucky will meet again this year — on Nov. 14, 2023, in Chicago, at the Champions Classic.

This and that …

Saturday’s win snapped KU’s three-game losing streak, meaning the longest single skid in Self’s 20 years in Lawrence is still three games. It also was KU’s third win in Lexington; all three wins have been under Self … Kentucky now leads the series 24-11 overall, but the Jayhawks have won five of the last seven meetings … KU is now 4-2 in true road games this season and 7-3 in games played outside of Allen Fieldhouse … The Kansas coaches donned suits again on Saturday night as part of the final day of “Suits And Sneakers Week,” which is a benefit for Coaches vs. Cancer. KU’s coaching staff also wore white, low-top Adidas shoes that featured a Jayhawk on the heel.


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