Kansas turns back pesky Eastern Kentucky 80-69
ST. LOUIS — Bill Self gathered his team around the bench late in Friday’s game against Eastern Kentucky, one that had grown a bit too close for comfort for the second-seeded Jayhawks.
His team had gone back to chucking up jumpers, the scrappy Ohio Valley Conference champions had regained the lead, and thoughts of Mercer’s upset of Duke earlier in the day were on everyone’s mind.
"I thought we responded as a group," Self said.
The Jayhawks resumed pounding away inside out of the timeout, slowly took control down the stretch and pulled away for an 80-69 victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Andrew Wiggins had 19 points for the Jayhawks (25-9), who will play No. 10 seed Stanford on Sunday in the South Regional. Jamari Traylor added 17 points and 14 rebounds, Perry Ellis had 14 points and 13 boards and Tarik Black finished with 12 points as Kansas dominated in the paint.
"Our main focus on the game was to get in there and pound them," Traylor said.
Even without 7-footer Joel Embiid, who is out for the weekend with a back injury.
Glenn Cosey hit five 3-pointers and had 17 points for the 15th-seeded Colonels (24-10), who have lost all eight of their NCAA Tournament games. Tarius Johnson and Eric Stutz finished with 15 points apiece, but second-leading scorer Corey Walden was held to four points before fouling out.
"Corey is a very important part of our team," Colonels coach Jeff Neubauer said. "With that being said, that’s not an excuse. Kansas really played great."
In the second half, perhaps. Certainly not in the first.
Like a swarm of gnats, the smaller guards of Eastern Kentucky made life miserable for the turnover-prone Jayhawks in the first 20 minutes. Kansas had more turnovers (10) by the midway point than field goal attempts (9), and at one juncture turned it over on six of eight possessions.
Most of those miscues turned into easy points at the other end.
The Colonels, buoyed by their trademark 3-point shooting, raced out to a 23-14 lead, silencing a heavily pro-Jayhawks crowd and even making some fans out of New Mexico and Stanford folks.
"Our defense is focused on turning people over and being aggressive," Stutz said. "In that first half, that’s what got us our lead."
It wasn’t until the first of two rim-rattling dunks by Wiggins off alley-oop passes that Kansas showed some life. The second came during an 8-0 flurry that gave the Big 12 champions a 28-27 lead with just over a minute to play, their first since the opening minute of the game.
The Jayhawks have grown accustomed to tussles with lower seeds, of course. Just last year, they trailed No. 16 seed Western Kentucky at halftime before pulling away down the stretch.
It looked like Kansas would pull away again Friday, scoring on its first seven trips down court and building a 45-38 lead. The turnovers suddenly came to a stop — after 13 in the first half, the Jayhawks had just one in the second — and Eastern Kentucky was suddenly on the ropes.
But rather than continue to pound away inside, where the Jayhawks were having so much success, they reverted to missing jump shots. The Colonels took advantage with a 10-0 run, and Self called a red-faced timeout rather than risk pulling out his hair.
"We knew that anything could happen," the Jayhawks’ Conner Frankamp said. "We were down, we tried to stay poised and not get too rattled, and just tried to make the easy play, because we felt like we could score pretty good down low."
Once they were reminded of that fact.
Kansas went back inside, dumping the ball to a big man or driving to the basket. The Jayhawks regained the lead at 59-56 on Wayne Selden’s free throw and Traylor’s putback dunk, and then kept turning back every 3-pointer that Eastern Kentucky managed to rattle home.
"Just our mentality (changed)," Wiggins said. "We were tougher on the ball. We knew against the defense of this team, we had to make good decisions, great plays and throw it inside."
When the final seconds ticked away, and the Jayhawks were assured of advancing, Self slowly walked to the scorer’s table to shake hands with his Eastern Kentucky counterpart. He exhaled deeply as he stuck out his hand, and the first words he said were, "Great game."
"They played great. They played loose and gave us everything we wanted," he said later. "It was a hard-fought game, one we had to work our tail off 40 minutes to come out with a win."