By Wendell Barnhouse
WACO, Texas – Kansas could take a page from Notre Dame football and hang a “Play Like A Champion Today” sign outside its locker room. The Jayhawks, though, tend to forget the signage and let their play deliver the message.
And on a night when two veteran players spent most of the night struggling, No. 12 Kansas got contributions from others down the stretch to slip past No. 21 Baylor, 56-55, Wednesday night. The narrow victory kept the Jayhawks (12-2, 1-0) perfect in Big 12 openers and was their 24th consecutive victory in a conference opener.
“We’re a close-knit team,” said sophomore guard Brannen Greene, who came off the bench to score 12 points, including two clutch free throws with 6.3 seconds remaining. “That’s one of the reasons we pulled this out, the experience we’ve had in past games. What I think is special about this team, we’ve come out on top when we need to.”
The Bears (11-3, 0-2) walked off the floor after the final buzzer baffled that the scoreboard wasn’t in their favor. Baylor had statistical edges in rebounding (36-28), made more free throws and more 3-pointers. But Kansas, which has won 10 consecutive Big 12 titles, flew home to Lawrence on a happy plane.
“We let one slip away,” said Rico Gathers, who had 14 points and nine rebounds.
“This is one where mental mistakes cost us, it’s really frustrating but we’ve got to move on,” said Baylor’s Kenny Chery, who had a game-high 25.
With 10.1 seconds remaining, Baylor had possession to the right of the lane on their end of the floor. Chery was inbounding with the intent to throw it out top to Taurean Prince. Gathers, though, appeared to break free under the basket and twice screamed for the ball. Chery considered, the difficult pass, then tried to inbound over Kelly Oubre, KU’s 6-7 freshman.
Oubre deflected the pass and in a scramble in the corner the ball went out of bounds of Chery.
“We had Wayne (Selden) in the game instead of Kelly and Wayne scored seven straight points,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Then we subbed in Kelly and he made the play that put us in position to win.”
Greene hit two free throws to put the Jayhawks up 56-53. The Jayhawks elected to foul Chery with 5.1 remaining instead of letting the Bears attempt a game-tying 3-pointer. He made both. KU’s Frank Mason missed the front end of a one-and-one with 3.9 to play but in the scramble to get the ball up the court, Chery passed to Lester Medford who was unable to get a shot off before the buzzer.
Kansas shot 72.7 percent, almost complete opposite of the 27.6 percent in the first half.
“We can’t allow that kind of shooting percentage in the second half,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Kansas did a great job executing its offense in the second half.”
To counter Baylor’s swarming zone, Kansas wanted to get the ball in the middle at the free throw line and attack. Jamari Traylor, who fouled out with 5:18 remaining, scored nine of his 13 points in the first seven minutes of the second half by following the game plan.
“Jamari kept us in the game,” KU’s Wayne Selden said. “He kept it close when they could have put their foot on our throat. He really led us to this win. We see that all the time in practice. He just performed.”
As Traylor started the second half, Selden finished it. He scored seven consecutive points in the last three minutes and the Jayhawks closed the game making eight of their last 10 field goals.
18:32. 16:09. 15:25. 12:38. 9:33. 8:34. 5:43. 1:56. Those are the times of Kansas’ eight field goals in the first half. Self said his offense’s spacing was good but the time space between baskets wasn’t great. The Jayhawks’ defense, though, limited the Bears to 7-of-25 (28 percent) shooting and KU trailed just 22-18 at intermission.
“We didn’t attack their zone worth a flip in the first half,” Self said. “It was a great team win. We guarded, especially inside the arc. This was a great team win. You look at the box score, the edges Baylor had, this wasn’t a road game you’re gonna win very often. This was huge.”