LEXINGTON, Ky. – So much for all that worry about No. 9 Kansas falling to its nadir under Bill Self.
Especially given the Jayhawks’ cool, level-headed response to several gut checks against other basketball royalty.
Jalen Wilson scored 22 points, including one in a string of huge 3-pointers down the stretch, and held off Kentucky 77-68 in an SEC/Big 12 Challenge Saturday night.
“We had some good, short streaks and kept them from going as a 10-2 run,” Self said. “We kept them out of the transition and out of the glass.”
The Jayhawks (17-4) definitely took the lead midway through the first half before withstanding every challenge from the Wildcats in this tense college basketball blue blood matchup. Gradey Dick and Wilson provided two of their biggest shots with consecutive 3-pointers for two ends of possession, with Wilson’s 3 making it 70-64 with 4:13 remaining.
Oscar Tshiebwe hit two free throws to bring Kentucky within four, but Kevin McCullar Jr. hit 3 more throws for a 73-66 lead. Wilson then returned Jacob Toppin’s jumper with one of his own to make it 75-68 with 1:52 left. Kansas, which won the national championship last season, avoided its first four-game losing streak under Self.
Not to mention getting revenge for the home loss to Kentucky a year ago.
“We didn’t think of it that way,” Wilson said of Kansas’ recent losses to No. 5 Kansas State, No. 11 TCU and No. 17 Baylor.
“It was three games against three excellent opponents like tonight. It was important to get the train going again. It was important to know what they did to us on our home field last year” Wilson said.
Tshiebwe had 18 points and nine rebounds, and Jacob Toppin and Cason Wallace each added 14 for Kentucky (14-7), which had won its previous four.
The Wildcats certainly had their chance despite shooting 2-of-13 from long range and starting 4-of-11 from the free throw line. They seemed to gain momentum as Antonio Reeves hit two free throws and Toppin followed a jumper to drive twice into a field goal.
Dick, Wilson and McCullar then followed with 3 seconds to strip it away for good.
“It was a close game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They deserved to win the match. They hit three 3s and you have to do that to win games like that.
Wilson went 9-of-18 from the field and grabbed eight rebounds for Kansas, who also finished with Kentucky on 49% shooting. KJ Adams Jr. added 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, Dick had 13 despite him only going 4-11 and McCullar 11 with 12 rebounds as the Jayhawks beat Kentucky 34-29 on the glass.
That included limiting Kentucky to just four offensive rebounds while shutting out the 11-0 Wildcats in second chance points.
“We were physical, but not physical enough,” Toppin said. “Every game we’ve won, we’ve dominated the draws and we didn’t do it tonight.”
Kansas definitely needed this win with more championship challenges ahead in the coming week. After facing K-State, the Jayhawks play No. 12 Iowa State, No. 10 Texas and Oklahoma, who shut out No. 2 Alabama 93-69 in its Challenge matchup.
It also puts their meltdown in context.
“Our league is such a monster,” Self added. “Our next three games are top-10, top-10, top-10, so it couldn’t be easier.”
Kansas: The Jayhawks were outscored by Kentucky most of the night, but consistently made crucial field goals and big defensive plays to maintain a lead. It was just what they needed after their slide into a seven-game Big 12 gauntlet with five ranked teams.
Kentucky: Poor free throws in the first half carved another hole that the Wildcats managed to overcome. They got close, but couldn’t equalize, and finishing 16 of 23 from the line eventually hurt them even making all 12 tries after the break.
Kansas hosts No. 5 Kansas State on Tuesday, looking to avenge their 83-82 overtime loss on Jan. 17.
Kentucky visits Mississippi Tuesday night in pursuit of its fifth straight SEC win.