LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Ernest Udeh Jr. understood, like everyone else, how much more he was to be relied on after Zuby Ejiofor was sidelined from the rest of Saturday’s game against Kentucky with an injury.
Ejiofor had been the first great off the Kansas basketball bench in the first half, spelling out KJ Adams Jr. after the sophomore got into trouble early. But then freshman forward Ejiofor committed two fouls himself before halftime and twisted his ankle. Ejiofor would return to the Jayhawks bench in the second half wearing a boot on his left foot, never returning to the game after going off with about seven minutes left in the first half.
And while Udeh has experienced his share of struggles — he was sometimes asked as a freshman center to match up against Wildcats star and senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe — in Udeh’s nearly 12 minutes of play, he provided what Kansas he needed. He made life more difficult in Tshiebwe and Kentucky. He played his part to help the Jayhawks win 77-68 against the Wildcats and end a three-game losing streak.
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“Well, we figured if we could actually screen somebody we could come out of it and run all the way to the basket, and that way we were able to basically get six points — pretty easy baskets, and I thought he did a good job there.” Kansas head coach Bill Self said of Udeh. “Ed’s young, and he’s not ready to defend him one-on-one, but I actually thought he did a great job of staying between him and the basket.”
Udeh hadn’t played more than 10 minutes in a game since Dec. 1, when Kansas (17-4, 5-3 in the Big 12 Conference) defeated Seton Hall inside Allen Fieldhouse in a game that even multiple extras watched time to play. Even since that game he hadn’t scored more than one point, scoring four against Kentucky (14-7, 5-3 in the Southeastern Conference) on Saturday. He didn’t crack under the pressure.
The Jayhawks allowed no second chance points, outscoring the Wildcats 11–0. Kentucky had just four offensive rebounds, compared to Kansas’ eight. Those are areas where the Wildcats probably should have left the game with leads, and Udeh helped ensure the Jayhawks didn’t let that happen, all the more important considering Kentucky left the field 16-of-23 from the free throw line compared to Kansas’ 9 out of 10.
It’s a performance that can help lead to more opportunities for Udeh, as the Jayhawks return to Big 12 play whether Ejiofor is available or not. Whatever level of confidence Udeh played with before, there should be more now. And he will continue to be able to turn to his more experienced teammates to earn more.
“It’s always good,” Adams said of Udeh’s game. “Ernest – I already knew it was only a matter of time before Ernest had a game like this. He hasn’t really had a chance, and these last two games he’s had a chance and he’s been doing what he basically does every day.
Kansas’ next two opponents, Kansas State at home on Tuesday and Iowa State on the road on Saturday, are two that Udeh has yet to play against this season. The Jayhawks lost to the Wildcats on the road and beat the Cyclones at home, but Udeh made no appearances in either game.
If Udeh plays, he’ll likely approach his minutes with the same mindset he’s said he has all season. He will be aware of what already happened in the game, like it was Adams’ foul trouble and Ejiofor’s injury. He will do what Self needs him to do.
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas athletics at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is the National Sports Media Association Sportswriter of the Year for the state of Kansas for 2022. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.