WACO, Texas – Kansas ended the first half of the Big 12 Conference season how it began, with a victory and a spot in first place. How the Jayhawks won, though, was a bit atypical from their previous 16 victories. And the final numbers and the method to reach those numbers were pleasing to KU coach Bill Self.
After suffering its first Big 12 loss Saturday to Texas – a game in Austin the Longhorns dominated from start to finish, Kansas completed a Texas two-step with Tuesday night against Baylor. The eighth-ranked Jayhawks (17-5, 8-1) played Big Boy Basketball around the rim and won a rock fight, 69-52.
“This game was about defense and rebounding a lot more than it was about offense,” said Self, whose team maintained a one-game lead on Texas in the standings. “There’s that saying that ‘Defense does travel.’ It didn’t travel to Austin. Playing on the road it’s not as much about playing really well as it is about making your opponent play poorly.”
That was certainly the case for the Bears (14-8, 2-7). Seeking to capitalize on an impressive victory at Oklahoma State Saturday and beat ranked teams in back-to-back games for the first time, Baylor never generated any offensive flow or rhythm. The Bears finished shooting 29.1 percent and missed 26 of their final 33 attempts.
“Kansas is a really sound defensive team,” said Baylor’s Brady Heslip, who scored all 12 of his points in the first half. “That’s a team that knows their identity and is tough. Credit them for playing defense like that.”
The Jayhawks also had a 45-31 rebounding edge, limiting Baylor’s leading rebounder (Cory Jefferson) to a single board. Jefferson scored 14 points and made 5-of-11 shots; his teammates were a combined 11-of-44.
Kansas also had 20 assists on 25 field goals as the Jayhawks were able to find the holes in the Bears’ zone defense.
“I feel like we played good and it started on the defensive end,” said KU point guard Naadir Tharpe, who had a game-high 22. “I thought we were getting after it on defense. Everyone was just in tune the whole game.”
Sophomore Perry Ellis had 14 points and 10 rebounds and freshman Andrew Wiggins stuffed the box score with 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals. But freshmen Wayne Selden Jr. and Joel Embiid combined for just nine points – although Selden was a key defender in shutting out Heslip in the second half.
With some of its pistons misfiring, Kansas was able to cope. Tharpe and Ellis combined for 24 first-half points.
“I thought Tharpe and Ellis were really the difference in making sure we never got in striking distance,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
The Bears’ best offensive surge came with just over eight minutes remaining. Heslip hit three consecutive 3-pointers and Jefferson hit a jumper to give Baylor a 24-21 lead. Kansas, though closed the half on a 14-3 run capped by a Wiggins highlight.
After Tharpe missed two free throws, Baylor had possession and called a set play with a lob toward the basket. Wiggins came off his defensive assignment for the interception and capped it off with a half-court heave for his first points of the game.
“Andrew got started after we ran that set play for him,” Self said, evoking laughter. Wiggins’ hero shot gave Kansas a 35-27 lead.
“It was big, it gave us big momentum to push through going into halftime,” Ellis said. “It was great that he knocked it down.”
Despite its offensive struggles, Baylor deliberately made it a one-possession game with just under 13 minutes to play. Tharpe, though, saved a poor possession by rising off the dribble and nailing a 3-pointer to make it 48-42.
“That was the play of the game,” Self said. “We were going nowhere on that possession and Naadir took it upon himself to make something happen.”
Wiggins scored seven consecutive points – a 3-pointer off the dribble, a fast break dunk and a slam off a Tharpe lob – to put the Jayhawks up 56-44 with 7:49 remaining. The Bears missed eight of their last nine shots to eliminate any comeback chances.
Baylor heads into the second half of the season thinking good thoughts and hoping to flip the script.
“Round one is over,” Drew said. “We’ve got to be a lot better in round two. I believe we can win all our remaining games. But with the Big 12 being like it is, we can lose every game. We have to play well enough to ensure us a chance to win.”