There were a lot of reasons to expect Kansas to be overmatched in Saturday’s showdown with Kentucky. The Jayhawks were coming off a 16-point loss. They were shorthanded. They were on the road in front of 23,000 screaming fans.
But there were three very specific reasons to expect Kansas to win: Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson.
For all the talk of Kentucky’s electrifying backcourt, it was the Jayhawk guards who weathered an early Big Blue storm and won the night over the full 40 minutes. Mason, Graham and Jackson combined for 53 points, 33 of them in the second half, to lead No. 2 Kansas to a 79-73 win over No. 4 Kentucky.
The play of Landen Lucas was also critical. Bill Self’s lone true center neutralized Bam Adebayo, scored 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting, and allowed the Jayhawks to pick up a massive road win.
The early pace was blistering. One 13-second sequence in the opening minutes featured six points, all on back-to-back-to-back one-man fast break layups from De’Aaron Fox and Frank Mason.
The opening stages also featured a few ominous signs for Self and Kansas. Kentucky pulled down four offensive rebounds before the first TV timeout, and generally looked superior on the interior. Kansas, playing without the suspended Carlton Bragg and injured Udoka Azubuike, was forced to go to forwards Mitch Lightfoot and Dwight Coleby behind starting center Landen Lucas. But Lucas turned out to be more than capable.
The post was not where Kentucky won the first half. It opened up its first lead with defense. It held Kansas to just three points over a seven-and-a-half-minute stretch by protecting the rim. It also got some good fortune: Kansas missed every single one of its eight first-half three-point attempts.
The continued staunch defense led to breakouts, and to acrobatic plays from Kentucky’s guards in transition. Malik Monk’s hang time on one layup was breathtaking, and put Kentucky up 20-10. He had drained a three one possession earlier.
MALIK. BLEEPING. MONK. pic.twitter.com/42fHjL2ooW
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 28, 2017
Monk was the best player on the floor in the first half. He poured in 12 points in the game’s first 12 minutes on 5-of-5 shooting. He hit threes, cut backdoor to get on the end of a Fox alley-oop pass, and hit a left-handed runner over two defenders.
The threat of Monk and Fox opened up opportunities for others. Derek Willis was one of those others. He was presented with two wide open threes, and drilled both. He then used a shot fake to the rim and, after a foul, to the free throw line. The 6-foot-9 senior made one of two to put Kentucky up 29-17.
Josh Jackson kept Kansas in the game throughout the first half, though, by doing a little bit of everything. He helped out the overmatched Jayhawks big men on the boards, scored 10 points and had two steals.
Kansas then went to a 2-3 zone and made a crucial run. Fox sprung right between the two at the top of the zone for a floater, but the Jayhawks then held the Wildcats without a field goal over the final 3:40 of the half. They forced both Fox and Monk into turnovers, two of Kentucky’s 10 before halftime. A steal off the errant Fox pass led to a fast break and a flying Lagerald Vick alley-oop dunk:
What. A. Dunk.
— Amie Just (@Amie_Just) January 29, 2017
Kansas closed the half on a 7-2 spurt and went into halftime down only five, 32-27.
Jackson came out of the locker room and drilled Kansas’s first two three-pointers of the game. Suddenly, the Jayhawks were in the lead, 33-32, for the first time since the score was 8-7. But Kentucky answered right back, and re-took a five-point lead on consecutive threes from Willis and Isaiah Briscoe.
Kansas’s shooting stroke was back, though, and here to stay. Devonte’ Graham followed up Jackson’s threes with one of his own; Svi Mykhailiuk hit a long two; the jumpshooting contest was on. Unfortunately for the visitors, Kentucky was very much up for it. Willis again had a quick response, his fourth made three of the contest.
The opening exchanges of the second half featured non-stop action, and when the first official timeout brought all involved a chance to catch their breath, 32 points had been scored, and the Wildcats led 47-44.
Coming out of the timeout, Kansas turned up its defense. Still in the 2-3, it baited Kentucky into bad passes. John Calipari had spoken at halftime about getting Isaiah Briscoe the ball in the middle of the zone, but one of his passes from the foul line was deflected and corralled by Kansas. Lucas recouped a Mason miss on the other end and kicked to Graham, who drilled a three. It was the final act of a 12-2 run that put the visitors up five, 54-49.
Kentucky had regained a one-point lead at the under-eight timeout, but Bill Self drew up a clever play to get Josh Jackson a mismatch in the post. The play was designed to draw help away from the basket, which meant Malik Monk’s decision to front Jackson in the post left him susceptible to a lob. Graham’s looping pass was perfectly weighted, and Jackson, although he missed the first attempt, got his own rebound and put Kansas back up one.
A Mason three on the next possession extended the lead to four, and compelled Calipari to take timeout. But the break didn’t alter the course of the game. Lucas scored twice around the rim, and sandwiched in between his two buckets was a fast break putback by Graham. Lucas’s second layup gave Kansas a 10-point edge.
Monk, who had gone scoreless since those 12 points in 12 minutes to open the game, hit a corner three with 3:21 remaining to get Kentucky back to within five. But Kansas had an answer, this time via Mykhailiuk, who pulled up and drained what looked like a three in Briscoe’s grill. Upon review, his foot was on the line, but the long two put the lead back at seven.
As Kansas attempted to see the game out, Fox put all kinds of pressure on Mason, but the Jayhawk senior held off the freshman. Kansas missed two shots up five, but on the second possession, Jackson got an offensive rebound and a putback. The points were his 19th and 20th, and Kansas’s 16th and 17th on second shots.
From there, the Jayhawks sealed the game from the free throw line. They improved to 19-2 on the season after losing on Tuesday at West Virginia. Kentucky, with its second loss of the week, falls to 17-4.