The mostly-KU-friendly crowd at Sprint Center in Kansas City couldn’t have felt comfortable at halftime with the Kansas Jayhawks trailing the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 31-30. On a day when Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast and when earlier in the day, LaSalle had already beaten Kansas State, anything was possible. On Thursday, number one seed Gonzaga was pushed to the brink by Southern University.
The setting was ripe for an upset.
Kansas opened up “tight” according to Bill Self and were outhustled by WKU. They turned the ball over nine times. They missed all five three-point shots they took. Ben McLemore was invisible except for a drawn up inbounds lob play, and they were outrebounded 18-11.
The first half saw McLemore and Elijah Johnson combine for 2-of-9 shooting, leavingJeff Withey and Perry Ellis as the only real threats on offense. Like many games this season, Kansas’s halfcourt offense sputtered while WKU frequently changed their sets and used their quickness to stay in front of ballhandlers. Nobody was able to drive and it took getting the ball to the forwards to get any scoring done. Kansas scored 22 of their 30 first-half points from inside the paint, getting six others from free throws.
Withey and Ellis combined for 15 points in the first half.
The second half opened up with no scoring for the first two minutes until Kansas took the lead back. Kevin Young shot a jumper that fell short, bouncing off the front of the rim. He ran for it, got the offensive rebound and finished it off with a reverse dunk to make the score 32-31. On WKU’s next possession, Kansas got a stop, Withey got the rebound, tossed it out to McLemore, who led Travis Releford to a lob and layup. Kansas took a three point lead. After WKU got it back to within one, another Young dunk brought the lead back to three, and the score never got any closer, as Kansas led for 18 minutes of the second half.
That shouldn’t suggest that it was an easy win, though. While McLemore was sluggish and tentative, Ellis lost his nerve in the second half, at one point obviously locking up on an open shot attempt. He was pulled and Young finished up most of the game. Despite some missed close shots, Kansas was able to get George Fant and Aleksejs Rostov into foul trouble.
The two forwards were able to create matchup problems and open up the KU defense during the first half, but when they left, Kansas was able to keep Withey inside. Anytime the Hilltoppers had the ball near the basket, Withey was disrupting it, adding big blocks in the process. WKU was missing jumpers as well. In the second half, they made just 8-of-39 field goals.
Withey was the key player late in the 64-57 win. With just a four point lead, Withey blocked a shot, then went down the court and scored on a layup on a feed from Releford. He made two more blocks and scored three more points in the next few minutes as KU built their lead to 52-42 at the four minute timeout. With three minutes left, Kansas had a 13 point lead.
But Western Kentucky wouldn’t go away quietly, getting a three-point play from Jamal Crook, then adding two free throws and a three pointer from T.J. Price. WKU turned up their press and Kansas made silly turnovers, nearly letting themselves get stopped in the backcourt while WKU had four guys defending the ball handler, or throwing the ball away when they got moving too quickly.
The turnovers gave WKU a shot to get it down to a one possession game, but Crook missed a layup in space and Kansas hit their free throws as time chipped away, avoiding becoming the first number one seed to lose to a sixteen.
After the game, Jeff Withey said that they’d taken WKU lightly, so perhaps this is a wakeup call to the team. They’ll need much better guard play. They’ll face North Carolina at 4:15 p.m. CST on Sunday, a game that may not be as intense defensively. On the other hand, UNC should be able to shoot better from outside than WKU’s 3-for-20. Withey finished with seven blocked shots and 17 points.
The two times Kansas has faced UNC under Roy Williams, they’ve won and both have been NCAA Tournament games. They’ll have to play with much more focus and composure to do it a third time.