LAWRENCE, Kan. — The eyes of the college basketball world on Saturday were once again focused on Kansas.
On this afternoon, at least, the Jayhawks put their best foot forward.
KU overcame a shaky start and an even more perilous finish to earn a 74-68 victory over Tennessee at Allen Fieldhouse, securing a win in the nationally televised Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup. Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks’ lone frontcourt player in the tilt, was plagued by foul trouble but finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and a game-best plus-minus of plus-19 in just 27 minutes, recording two pivotal blocks in the game’s final minute.
Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson finished with team-highs of 22 points and seven assists for KU.
Shorthanded after Tuesday’s late-game fight with Kansas State left the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks with seven scholarship players, Bill Self’s squad nevertheless made the most of its 300th consecutive sellout and the increased attention that came with ESPN’s College GameDay program — and the negative headlines that followed Tuesday’s melee.
The Jayhawks (16-3), a 13-point favorite at tipoff, led by seven at the break after trailing by that many on two separate occasions earlier in the first half.
Azubuike, KU’s lone big with forwards Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack suspended, picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 10:39 left in the opening period. Forced to play a five-guard lineup, the Jayhawk defense unraveled — KU surrendered a 7-for-7 shooting stretch for the Volunteers (12-7), who rallied from a three-point deficit to a 26-19 advantage.
But Self gambled, and it paid off.
Self reinserted Azubuike into the lineup with 5:48 left in the frame, and the 7-footer made an immediate impact, throwing down a dunk on his first possession back. That conversion kick-started a 12-0 run that saw the home squad take a 31-26 lead, with Azubuike notching seven points in that rally.
Kansas Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike (35) smiles after being fouled while shooting during the second half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Allen Fieldhouse. (Photo: Denny Medley, USA TODAY Sports)
Tennessee trimmed its hole to one, but KU answered with a 6-0 run to take a 37-30 lead into the locker room. Azubuike departed to a hearty ovation with 1:34 left before halftime.
KU built a 13-point lead in the first six minutes of the second half, but it was Tennessee’s turn to rally. Rick Barnes’ crew cut its deficit to four on a Yves Pons dunk with 10:35 left, and the Volunteers appeared to be in fantastic shape when Azubuike picked up his fourth foul with 8:25 remaining. The careless reach-in infraction sent the sent the center to the bench with the Jayhawks up six, 62-56.
Tennessee took immediate advantage of Azubuike’s departure. Three straight point-blank makes made it a one-possession game, 66-63, and forced a KU timeout with 4:27 left. Pons’ layup capped the 3-of-3 stretch for the Volunteers, and Self had seen enough, sending Azubuike back out with four fouls.
The move paid immediate dividends, but the same couldn’t be said of Barnes’ decision to deploy “Poke-a-Doke,” the strategy of intentionally fouling Azubuike to send the career 39.8% free-throw shooter to the stripe. Azubuike went 2 for 2, sending the home crowd into a frenzy, and then went 1 for 2 after what appeared to be an unintentional foul to deliver a 69-63 lead with 3:34 left.
Again, though, Tennessee didn’t go away. A free-throw make and a John Fulkerson jumper trimmed the deficit back to three with 2:04 left. But Azubuike went 1 for 2 from the line, and with 1:20 left, he intercepted a pass into the paint to secure what was a much-needed and rare steal for the Delta, Nigeria, native. Dotson went 1 for 2 from the free-throw line on KU’s next possession to set the lead back to five, 71-66, with 55 seconds left.
That’s when Azubuike channeled his inner Dikembe Mutombo. He blocked Fulkerson’s jumper with 44 seconds left, and after a Tennessee offensive rebound, Azubuike blocked Pons’ jumper in the paint. On his way back up the court, Azubuike gave a finger wag in the direction of the Allen Fieldhouse faithful.
Dotson hit a pair of free throws with 31 seconds left, and a Jordan Bowden layup accounted for Tennessee’s final points. KU gave the game its final score on a free-throw make by Ochai Agbaji, who was the Jayhawks’ only other double-figure scorer (16 points).
Pons finished with a game-high 24 points, while Bowden had 19, all in the second half. Fulkerson’s 15 rounded out the Volunteers’ double-figure scorers.
KU’s season continues with an 8 p.m. Monday clash with Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., the final game of McCormack’s suspension. De Sousa isn’t eligible to return until the Jayhawks’ regular-season finale March 7 at Texas Tech.
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