LEXINGTON, Kentucky — There was a stretch in the second half on Saturday where it looked like Kansas basketball would have to beat Kentucky with only nine scholarship players available.
The Jayhawks entered the game with redshirt freshman guard Kyle Cuffe Jr. and super senior forward Cam Martin unavailable. In the first half, freshman Zuby Ejiofor twisted his ankle and was ruled out for the remainder of the game. And then early in the second half, redshirt senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. also twisted his ankle.
But while the nearly five minutes following McCullar’s injury saw the Wildcats cut Kansas’ lead from nine to six, McCullar came back with about 14 minutes left in regulation. He played the rest of the game. And the Jayhawks No. 9s earned a 77-68 victory on the road at Kentucky.
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“I was more confident when (McCullar) came back,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self. “But, yeah, I mean, I think our guys are capable of doing well. But the way we were trying to trap the post and stuff, if we didn’t have Kevin he would be dead. So, Oscar (Tshiebwe) would have had a much nicer evening if Kevin hadn’t returned.
A win for the Jayhawks was always going to be significant, as this was a matchup of two blue-blooded programs. It was also the two sides side in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. But there was also the three-game losing streak that Kansas entered the contest with.
It was quite rare, in the Self era, for a three-game losing streak to occur. But under Self, who took over before the 2003-04 season, the Jayhawks (17-4, 5-3 in the Big 12 Conference) had never lost in a four-game streak. With a return to the Big 12 gauntlet looming, they could have come home from this trip making the kind of story they never thought they’d make.
Self and some of his players seemed to play down the postgame pressure. Playing this type of game inside Rupp Arena, especially after losing at home by nearly 20 points last season to the Wildcats (14-7, 5-3 in Southeastern Conference play), was where their comments they were more distorted. There was, however, some recognition of the confidence that this can lead them forward.
McCullar finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds for his second straight double-double. For the most part, he was an absolute asset on defense. And a 3-pointer he hit late in the second half to put Kansas up 73-66 seemed to be the final blow the Jayhawks needed to deliver.
“I asked Kevin if he wanted to go back, and he said, ‘Heck yeah, I’m already hurt. I might as well play,’” said Self, who praised the way all of his starters performed against Kentucky. “So, yeah, it was great. He bounced the ball. He got his hands on several balls. We were trapping and our rotations weren’t great, but he made up for the mistakes of the others because he’s so smart on defense. And he hadn’t been shooting the ball well lately, but then he had the biggest shot of the game, probably, to give us some cushion there late. I’m really happy with him.”
Freshman center Ernest Udeh Jr. added about McCullar: “He was on the bench with me, I was talking to him, I was like, ‘Do you feel like you can come back?’ He told me, ‘Yes.’ So, that was really huge. He did that take and I feel like we really needed that take. And in the end, we won the game.”
The road really doesn’t get any easier for Kansas moving forward. On Tuesday, the Jayhawks will welcome Kansas State (18-3, 6-2 in Big 12 play) to Allen Fieldhouse in a rematch of an overtime thriller earlier this season in Manhattan, Kansas. Then come games at Iowa State, against Texas and both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to carry Kansas through the first half of February.
It’s unclear whether Ejiofor will be healthy enough to return for the Kansas State game Tuesday, or if his recovery schedule will force him to miss some time. He was wearing a shoe on his left foot when he returned to the bench in the second half, and Self had nothing to comment on his status. But it doesn’t seem like anyone has to worry that McCullar might get lost too.
“I just cut to the basket, stepped on a dude’s foot, just tweaked my ankle a little bit, but I’m going to be good,” McCullar said. “I have the best trainer in (Bill Cowgill), he’s going to bring me back well and I’ll be ready by Tuesday.”
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.