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Kansas holds off challenge from 16th seed

The SportsXchange

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas coach Bill Self could laugh after his Jayhawks escaped a historic upset to 16th seeded Western Kentucky. But it was nervous laughter.

Kansas edged Western Kentucky 64-57 to avoid being the first No. 1 seed ever to lose its first game in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks were 9-of-10 from the free-throw line in the final minutes to close out their victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Sprint Center on Friday.

"Obviously we're pleased we won, but we didn't play our best, by any stretch," he said. "But give Western credit. I thought they were the most aggressive team. They controlled the game for the most part until the second half when we got the ball inside some."

Self's laughter came when asked about his team's defense that held Western Kentucky to 3-of-20 shooting from 3-point range.

"That (stat is) true, but we also made one shot for the game outside of two feet, and that was (from) our 7-foot center," he said. "We didn't exactly light it up either.

"But our defense was pretty good in the second half. I thought we were playing better with about seven minutes left in the second half. We had 17 points and they had about six. I thought there were some good things we did defensively."

Jeff Withey's inside presence finally paid off for the Jayhawks, as the 7-footer scored nine points in the second half to help Kansas pull away. His short hook in the lane with 3:52 left gave Kansas a double-digit lead for the first time at 52-42.

Withey led Kansas with 17 points. Ben McLemore and Travis Releford each contributed 11 points for the Jayhawks.

Four Hilltopers, led by Jamal Crook with 13 points, scored in double figures.

Kansas will play North Carolina, who defeated Villanova earlier in the day, in Sunday's third round.

"The entire country got a glimpse of what they're made of, their character, their heart," Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said. "A lot of people doubted us."

Western Kentucky didn't doubt itself. In fact, the players felt like they let one slip away.

"We had a lot of looks," George Fant said. "We just didn't finish. I had a lot of looks myself."

That point was not disputed by the Jayhawks.

"We definitely let them get some open looks in the second half," Travis Releford said. "It just wasn't falling for them. It was miscommunication on our end. We (weren't) talking much."

The Jayhawks (30-5) had their hands full with the Hilltoppers. Kansas scored the first four points of the second half to grab their biggest lead of the game at 34-31. Both teams started the second half in sluggish fashion. The Hilltoppers made only one of their first 12 shots of the half.

The Jayhawks just couldn't shake Western Kentucky (20-16). Even when Kansas led by six points on several occasions, Western would answer. It wasn't until Withey scored seven points in a 9-3 run that Kansas could feel comfortable.

Western Kentucky actually out-rebounded the Jayhawks 41-35, including a whopping 18-4 on the offensive glass.

"We obviously didn't rebound the ball," Self said. "They got way too many extra possessions."

For a moment, at least. The Hilltoppers answered Kansas with an 8-2 run to cut the lead to 55-50. But Kansas' success from the free-throw line in the closing moments clinched the victory.

Western Kentucky continued the trend of lower-seeded teams putting scares into their opponents. No. 12 seed Mississippi beat Wisconsin and 13-seed LaSalle beat Kansas State in the opening session in Kansas City. Also, ninth-seeded Villanova overcame a 20-point deficit to take the lead before falling late to North Carolina.

The Hilltoppers led through most of the first half. They led by as many as four. A layup by Crook with 45 seconds left in the first half allowed Western to take a 31-30 lead into intermission.

Kansas was led by Withey with eight points and Perry Ellis had seven.

Western Kentucky got nine points from Aleksejs Rostov and eight from George Fant. The Hilltoppers outrebounded Kansas 18-13, including a 5-2 edge on the offensive end.

NOTES: Western Kentucky is in the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd time overall, and fourth time in the past six seasons. The Hilltoppers have won at least one game in each of their last three appearances. ... The Hilltoppers are 1-1 against Kansas all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Western Kentucky won the third-place game of the 1971 Final Four (later vacated) and lost in the second round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. ... Kansas is in its 42nd NCAA Tournament, including its 24th in a row, the longest active streak in the nation. The 1988-89 Jayhawks were ineligible. The last time Kansas was eligible for the NCAA Tournament and didn't make it was 30 years ago. ... This is the 11th time that Kansas has earned a No. 1 seed since the NCAA began seeding in 1979.
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