Cutting deficit before half helped KU storm back in Norman

photo by: AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck

Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr., front right, drives the ball against Oklahoma foward Jalon Moore (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Norman, Okla.

Norman, Okla. — What already feels like an eternity ago, on Jan. 10 in Orlando, the game that kicked off a month’s worth of road struggles from Kansas was decided by one pivotal stretch late in the first half.

The Jayhawks led a struggling UCF — which was playing its first-ever home game in the Big 12 Conference — 35-19 before allowing the Knights’ offense to mount a 10-2 run entering halftime.

UCF followed that with a 14-6 stretch out of the break to tie the game, and KU coach Bill Self, in the aftermath of what became a 65-60 loss, reflected on those moments by saying “The game was lost, or the game was won, depending on which side you’re on, the last four minutes of the first half, and then obviously the first three minutes of the second half.”

After suffering that unexpected loss, the Jayhawks had just once in five additional tries managed to win on the road. When they finally did it Saturday at Oklahoma, it was in a similar fashion to what the Knights had done to them.

KU looked like it was headed down the path of last Monday’s blowout loss at Texas Tech when it gave up a 3-pointer to Le’Tre Darthard — already OU’s seventh 3-pointer of the game — with two minutes left in the first half and went down 34-23.

Instead, the sputtering Jayhawks managed three straight successful offensive possessions, plus three consecutive defensive stops, and only trailed 34-29 at the half.

“That helped us out a lot,” point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. said postgame, “because you know, they could have went on a run and we could have went into halftime and they could have came out the second half and blew us out on their home court.”

What actually happened was that much like UCF against KU, the Jayhawks were able to tie the game up only a few minutes into the second period, then surge ahead late for the victory.

“Maybe luck. Great coaching,” KU coach Bill Self joked, asked how his team was able to succeed on those last few possessions. “Heck, I don’t know what it was. But we got stops, and we were fortunate when we did, and then we made a couple of shots.”

The sequence was chaotic and strange, but unified by one common thread: the strong play of freshman guard Jamari McDowell, back after missing two games due to the flu, as he once again showed an ability to shine in limited minutes (he played four on the night).

“We just dug in there,” Harris said. “Mari came in, big minutes, and he got some rebounds in, some passes to Hunt.”

Indeed, during that six-possession stretch, McDowell scored on a putback off a deflection, got OU forward Luke Northweather stuck in the corner on a possession that led to a missed layup by Milos Uzan, sent a slick bounce pass to Hunter Dickinson for a floater and then played tight enough defense on Uzan to force a miss on the final shot of the half.

Other possessions included a successful hook shot by Dickinson off the dribble and a traveling call on OU’s Jalon Moore.

The strongest support for Self’s “maybe luck” theory came on the possession that ended with McDowell’s bounce pass to Dickinson.

To even get to that point, KU’s Harris and Kevin McCullar Jr. each had to independently lose and recover the ball, then Dickinson had to whack an offensive rebound all the way back to halfcourt, where it was recovered by Johnny Furphy.

On the night, KU outperformed OU in second-chance points, 13-6, in the 67-57 victory.

Looking back, Self said that the win could be traced back to the moments just before the break.

“The key was when we got it (from) 11 to 5 at halftime,” he said. “To me, that was the biggest stretch of the game.”


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