LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP)—Kansas almost had a short stay at No. 1.
The top-ranked Jayhawks trailed upset-minded Vermont much of the way in a shaky season opener Friday night, but Wayne Simien had 25 points and 14 rebounds to help Kansas finally pull away from the Catamounts 68-61.
“Who scheduled that one?” said Simien with a laugh. “The first game is supposed to ease into the season, man. But we knew they were going to come out and play us tough.”
The Jayhawks, who haven’t started a season No. 1 since Wilt Chamberlain was in school, trailed the underdog Catamounts 58-54 when Taylor Coppenrath hit a short jumper with 4:24 left.
Christian Moody, a walk-on starter, then made two free throws to give Kansas a 61-59 lead with 2:49 left and start a 9-2 run that extinguished Vermont’s bid for what would have been one of the great upsets in school history.
Vermont coach Tom Brennan, who has announced this will be his last season, explained his feelings by referring to Kansas coach Mark Mangino.
Mangino was fined $5,000 this week for suggesting that officials had let Texas beat his Jayhawks on Saturday.
“I feel a little bit like coach Mangino,” Brennan said. “I would tell you why, but I don’t have $5,000.”
Aaron Miles, who missed his first eight shots, made a 14-footer to beat the shot clock and put Kansas on top 63-59 with 1:48 to play.
Simien, a preseason All-America forward, scored the last four points for Kansas (1-0), which hasn’t lost a home opener in 32 years.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a pushover,” said Simien, a preseason All-American. “Obviously, we didn’t do some things very well. They were hitting shots and we weren’t defending that well. We were fortunate to get the win.”
Coppenrath, whose 24.1 average last year helped propel the Catamounts (0-1) to their second straight NCAA tournament, had just six points in the first half but finished with 23 points and seven rebounds. T.J. Sorrentine had 13 points for Vermont.
“We were just a little behind, and that is the way it goes,” said Coppenrath. “Our defense was really good. They had to make a lot of tough shots.”
After his first bucket, Miles grabbed a key rebound and fed Keith Langford running the floor. Langford was fouled by Coppenrath and made one shot for a 64-59 lead that gave Kansas breathing room for the first time all night.
“You have to give them a lot of credit,” said Miles. “They are an exciting team. It was a chance to play a good inside player and outside player.”
With 3:28 left, J.R. Giddens hit a 3-pointer that put the Jayhawks on top 59-58, then Coppenrath hit a free throw that tied it at 59-all.
The two teams swapped the lead back and forth through the 40s and 50s with nobody ever leading by more than two.
A pair of free throws by Simien tied it 54-all but then Coppenrath outmuscled Simien for an offensive rebound and got the putback for a 56-54 lead with 5:24 to go.
Coppenrath made it 58-54 with 4:24 left, then Simien got free underneath and inspired a roar from the crowd with a dunk that closed the gap to 58-56.
The Catamounts, who return four starters from last year’s 22-9 team, shot 29 percent in the first half but trailed only 38-29 because Kansas hit only 11 of 32 from the floor.
“We really competed,” said Brennan. “We did everything but win. I am proud of my boys. I love them all.”
Langford and Giddens each had 12 for Kansas.
“Wayne Simien is a horse,” Langford said. “We just get on his back and ride.”