How KU basketball learned a 'good lesson' in airtight 67-62 victory over UTEP

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas basketball forward David McCormack, front, and teammate Christian Braun, right, celebrate a made basket by McCormack during the second half of Thursday's game against UTEP at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. McCormack finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds and the No. 13 Jayhawks overcame a 15-point second-half deficit to win 67-62.

LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball’s 11th-hour move to add UTEP to its regular-season schedule, Bill Self said after the matchup with the Miners, was “absolutely” the right call.

However, the Jayhawk head coach added, that belief proved a fluid one as the at-times distressing tilt with the 17-point-underdog visitors unfolded Thursday night at Allen Fieldhouse.

“I was pissed at my sport administrator (Sean Lester) about 8 o’clock,” Self said, “but post-8:30, I’m glad (we did).”

So too, one must assume, are three Jayhawks who came up big when it mattered most.

David McCormack scored 18 points and hauled in 10 rebounds, with 13 of those points coming in the game’s final nine minutes, and No. 13-ranked KU overcame a 15-point second-half deficit to earn a 67-62 victory over UTEP. Senior guard Marcus Garrett, playing in perhaps his final contest inside Allen Fieldhouse, and redshirt freshman guard Dajuan Harris proved their worth defensively, notching four and two second-half steals, respectively, to key the Jayhawks’ comeback from the other end.

Garrett's layup with 22.4 seconds left broke a 62-all deadlock, and Harris followed with a pair of clutch free-throw makes with 17.5 seconds left for a two-possession lead. KU (19-8) hit seven of its last eight field goal attempts, while UTEP (12-11) connected on just one of its final seven, held without a bucket in the game’s last four minutes.

The Jayhawks have now won 38 consecutive home finales, a streak that dates back to the 1983-84 campaign.

“We needed to win the game, without question, but it was a real game. This was not a tune-up game. It was a real game, and that’s what we talked about earlier," Self said. "It had an NCAA Tournament-feel, not the atmosphere but from a standpoint (that) you labor, you labor, things don’t go well, but it’s a long game. So it was good to play through that.”

McCormack, who scored 10 straight team points in a 10-2 run that cut the home squad's deficit to just one, 55-54, with 5:19 left to play, shook his first-half funk to also record two blocked shots, two assists and a steal in his 30-minute outing. Garrett notched 11 points and five assists in his 38 minutes, while the reserve Harris had 6 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists and was trusted enough to be on the court for the game’s final 17 minutes.

Ochai Agbaji kept KU afloat in the first half and finished with a team-high 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting with six rebounds and two steals.

“We weren’t any good, obviously, for 30 minutes, at all. We played a really good team that was better than us. But we were a really good team in the last 10 minutes,” Self said. “So I’m leaving out of here feeling pretty good. The fact that we didn’t panic, I think, was a good sign.”

The Jayhawks, who two weeks ago added Thursday’s game to their slate to break up what would've been a 12-day stretch between its originally scheduled home finale against Baylor last Saturday and its Big 12 Tournament opener on March 11, were just 2 of 10 on dunks and layups in the first half and shot 27.6% across the first 20 minutes en route to a disconcerting 34-20 deficit at intermission.

Jamal Bieniemy's 3-pointer with 14:28 left to play ballooned UTEP’s lead to 48-33, but that’s when KU began to claw back, particularly through stout play on the defensive end. Self credited assistant coach Norm Roberts for the idea to have Garrett guard Miner forward Bryson Williams, and it worked wonderfully — the 6-foot-8, 230-pounder had 21 points across the game's first 14 minutes but netted just two more the rest of the way.

"Marcus is the best defensive player in the country, hands-down, no questions asked," McCormack said. "Day-in and day-out he proves that. He gets stops, he can guard anybody on the floor. That says everything. He's just the best defensive player."

McCormack, meanwhile, asserted himself in that 10-2 stretch, which included points on four straight trips down the court for the 6-10, 250-pounder.

“It definitely started out as a trap game, just not having the right mentality, not being as aggressive. But we realized that and were smart enough to flip the switch and not have the result of a trap game,” McCormack said. “We still walked out of here with a win, and that was the main point.”

McCormack's hook shot through contact and subsequent free-throw make completed the comeback and put KU up 62-60 with 2:39 left, and while the Miners tied the game on a pair of Souley Boum makes at the stripe, it proved to be the visitors' last gasp. Garrett's bucket, Harris' free-throw makes and one at the line for Agbaji with four seconds left gave the contest its final score.

Williams' 23 points and Boum's 16 led the way for UTEP, a team Jayhawk players “didn’t respect” as much as they probably should’ve, Self theorized.

“It’s a good lesson to learn, that we are so average, at best, when we don’t play a certain way. And when we play a certain way we can get pretty good,” Self said. “Our energy level defensively and rebounding the ball was very poor the first half and certainly very good there late.”

Saturday’s final action of the Big 12 regular season will determine who KU plays when the conference tournament rolls around next week at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo. A loss by No. 6 West Virginia in its home finale versus No. 17 Oklahoma State would deliver a two-seed to the Jayhawks, who have won seven of their last eight contests.

“We needed a game like (Thursday) in which we had to execute and get some stops,” Self said. “I think that right there should give us some confidence.”

NO. 13 KANSAS 67, UTEP 62

UTEP (12-11)

Boum 5-16 5-6 16, Verhoeven 1-2 0-0 2, Kennedy 2-8 0-0 6, Williams 9-19 3-4 23, Bieniemy 2-5 2-3 8, Agnew 1-4 0-0 2, Sjolund 1-2 0-0 3, Odigie 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 22-59 10-13 62.

KANSAS (19-8)

Garrett 3-9 4-4 11, Braun 3-7 0-0 6, Wilson 1-7 0-2 3, Agbaji 7-12 2-5 19, McCormack 6-13 6-8 18, Harris 1-1 4-4 6, Thompson 1-4 0-0 2, Lightfoot 1-2 0-1 2. Totals 23-55 16-24 67.

Half — UTEP 34-20. 3-point goals — UTEP 8-26 (Bieniemy 2-4, Kennedy 2-4, Williams 2-6, Sjolund 1-2, Boum 1-8, Agnew 0-2), Kansas 5-15 (Agbaji 3-6, Garrett 1-3, Wilson 1-4, Braun 0-1, Thompson 0-1). Rebounds — UTEP 40 (Williams 13), Kansas 34 (McCormack 10). Assists — UTEP 9 (Bieniemy 5), Kansas 12 (Garrett 5). Turnovers — UTEP 14 (Boum 4), Kansas 11 (McCormack 3). Blocks — UTEP 7 (Verhoeven 5), Kansas 4 (McCormack 2). Steals — UTEP 7 (Boum 3), Kansas 10 (Garrett 4). Total fouls — UTEP 16, Kansas 11. Fouled out — none. Technical fouls — none. Officials — Natili, Pettigrew, Moore. Attendance — 2,600.