Jayhawks struggle through 90-74 win over Lehigh
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP)—Kansas coach Bill Self had to burn an early timeout, and was thrilled when his team tied the game at 12.
This wasn’t the way the Jayhawks wanted to start the NCAA tournament.
Little Lehigh nearly took down the biggest Goliath of them all.
Struggling against another Patriot League team in Oklahoma City, top-seeded Kansas survived a scare by pulling away for a 90-74 win over scrappy Lehigh and avoiding a monumental upset in the Midwest Regional on Thursday night.
“It’s a good thing we got tested,” Kansas senior Sherron Collins said. “We needed that. It’ll get us ready for games like this because there’ll be more games we get tested in this tournament. It’s a crazy tournament.”
Kansas (33-2) nearly became the biggest name to be crossed off the brackets on a wild opening day of the NCAA tournament.
Falling into their season-long pattern of playing in spurts, the Jayhawks gave No. 16 seed Lehigh (22-11) hope of making college basketball history.
Kansas led by just six and halftime and didn’t pull away until midway through the second half for a tougher-than-anticipated start to what’s expected to be a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
Marcus Morris had 26 points and 10 rebounds, Collins chipped in 18 points and Tyrel Reed hit four big 3-pointers for Kansas as it moves on to face gritty Northern Iowa in a second-round game that suddenly seems much more daunting.
“We’ve got a lot to work on,” Self said.
Lehigh made its fourth NCAA appearance a memorable one, stretching the nation’s No. 1 team to the brink of disaster.
The Mountain Hawks answered nearly every Kansas run and were still within single digits midway through the second half before fading under the Jayhawks’ seemingly never-ending depth. C.J. McCollum showed no fear against the mighty Jayhawks, scoring 26 points, and Zahir Carrington added 17.
“The game tonight was going to require an absolute champion effort to dethrone Kansas,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. “I’m proud of our hustle, I’m proud of our determination, I’m proud of our fight. Unfortunately, we came through on the wrong side and didn’t have quite enough miracle plays in order to pull off a tremendous upset.”
It helped that the Jayhawks weren’t just facing Lehigh. They were up against fate, too.
Five years ago, Kansas suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in the program’s storied history, to Bucknell in the opening round.
By itself, no big deal. The eerie part was this game was on the exact day, at the same time, in the same arena, against the same opponent (the Patriot League champion) in a season Kansas opened No. 1.
This year was supposed to be different.
Kansas had one of its best seasons, winning a sixth-straight regular-season title in the tough Big 12 and a seventh conference tournament championship. The Jayhawks are a favorite to win a second national title in three years and were picked by Presidential prognosticator Barack Obama to cut the nets.
Kansas had history on its side, too: No. 1 seeds were 101-0 before tip-off.
And this was a classically monumental mismatch: the tiny academic school (enrollment of 4,700) from Bethlehem, Pa., against the powerhouse program with a place on college basketball’s Mount Rushmore.
Even after winning a school-record 22 games this season and the Patriot League title game over rival Lafayette, the Mountain Hawks figured to be in trouble, especially with the Ford Center bathed in Kansas blue from all the fans who made the five-hour trip from Lawrence.
Lehigh wasn’t buying it.
Refusing to be stirred by KU’s blue blood, the Mountain Hawks went right at the Jayhawks, forcing four turnovers and five missed shots on the way to a 12-4 start that had Self signaling for a timeout and the Kansas faithful worried.
“It was more of a shock to the other people in the building that we came to play,” Carrington said. “We came here to win.”
Then things seemed to fall back into 1-vs-16 order after that. Kansas responded to Self’s admonitions with an inevitable-feeling 15-0 run that became 21-2, putting Kansas up 25-14.
That was it, right?
Nope. Lehigh answered with a 9-0 run, pulling within two on Carrington’s turnaround jumper. The Mountain Hawks hung in there until halftime, trailing by just 35-29 to give the improbable a sprinkle of potential that carried well into the second half.
Reed crushed the dream with two 3-pointers midway through and Kansas gradually pulled away for a sigh-of-relief win.
“It’s the tournament. Now, you’ve just got to survive,” Collins said. “It’s win and survive right now.”