Kansas center Udoka Azubuike, who had been banished to the bench with five fouls with 5 minutes to play in a nail-biter of a game, erupted in joy when his substitute, Mitch Lightfoot, raced to the perimeter to block a TCU guard’s shot with the verdict on the line.
“Man, I was excited. I was really excited,” 7-footer Azubuike said of his reaction to 6-8 sophomore Lightfoot’s rejection of a Jaylen Fisher trey with 26 seconds left and KU leading by three points in a game the Jayhawks eventually won 88-84 at Schollmaier Arena.
“I was pumped, jumping from my seat. That was a huge play. That was the game-winning block right there,” added Azubuike, who had 14 points and one rebound in 13 foul-plagued minutes.
“That was huge. Mitch played really good. He came in when we needed him. I was in foul trouble. He played a big role in a game, in the win. He was good.”
Lightfoot scored nine points (two off a career high) with seven rebounds (one off a career high) and had a career-best six blocked shots.
The block of Fisher led to a rebound by Devonté Graham (28 points, six assists, 13 of 15 free throws, including 8 of 8 in the final 2 minutes) and two foul shots that gave KU an 85-80 advantage with 21.9 left.
Of course the final result wasn’t settled until Malik Newman hit one of two free throws with 4.5 seconds left to up an 87-84 margin to two possessions.
But no doubt Lightfoot’s rejection was huge — as huge as the three the Chandler, Ariz., native hit with 7:26 left to give KU a 70-64 advantage.
“To me, Devonté was the story. Mitch was what is it you call it, the sub-line? The subplot?” KU coach Bill Self said after the No. 10 Jayhawks, who led by as many as 14 points in the first half and eight at the break, improved to 2-1 in the Big 12 and 12-3 overall. No. 16-ranked TCU fell to 13-2, 1-2.
Mitch was great,” Self said. “He was active, smart. We couldn’t have won the game without Mitch. He was fabulous.”
Lightfoot spoke to the media sporting a slight cut on the bridge of his nose. He worked hard in his 26 minutes of duty battling the likes of TCU big man Vlad Brodziansky, who had 20 points and 10 boards.
“I just try to be in the right place at the right time,” Lightfoot said of his block of Fisher’s three. The 6-foot-2 Fisher hit four three-pointers en route to 16 points.
“We switched at the top of the key. He let it fly. I was happy to get a piece of it,” Lightfoot added.
Of his three-pointer, Lightfoot, who has made 5 of 10 this season, said: “Coach said he knew when I made the first one, another one was going to go up.”
Indeed, Lightfoot did miss another trey shortly after the one he sank. “Coach congratulated me on a good game, said he appreciated it (the effort),” Lightfoot added.
Senior guard Svi Mykhailiuk scored 20 points for the Jayhawks on 7-of-13 shooting. He made 5 of 7 threes and had six assists and four rebounds in 38 minutes. Freshman guard Marcus Garrett had four points and six boards in 33 minutes, and soph guard Sam Cunliffe four points in 11 minutes for KU. Junior guard Lagerald Vick and sophomore guard Newman struggled, with eight points and one point, respectively.
Mykhailiuk wanted to deflect credit to others, such as Lightfoot.
“Mitch was probably why we won. He got six blocks, the last one was a three-point shot by Fisher. It was the key play of the game,” Mykhailiuk said.
“Svi played well,” Self said. “This week Svi told me, ‘Coach I’ll play better if I play 27 (minutes).’ He’s playing too many. He knows it,” Self added.
Mykhailiuk said: “To play 38 minutes is kind of hard, but I actually didn’t feel that tired tonight. It was an important game. It meant a lot after a home loss to come out and get a win here.”
KU, which opened league play with a win over Texas, lost three days later at home to Texas Tech.
“That was a huge win,” Self said, “especially coming off the Texas Tech game, where we were so bad at home. It was big to come down here. It’s amazing … we’ve actually played better away from home this year than at home.”
Self obviously was pleased the Jayhawks could win on a night in which Azubuike labored with foul problems.
“He was effective offensively,” Self said. “One foul he backed into a dude without the ball. One over the back. Those are probably fouls, but gosh dang, those are fouls you can’t get it you want to play him a lot of minutes. They can happen every possession. We didn’t help Doke much. He was good offensively, though.”
KU will meet Iowa State at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse.
Frustration settling in over Preston case?
Self said after the game, “we thought maybe we’d have another big or two (for this game).”
He ostensibly was referring to bigs Billy Preston and/or Silvio De Sousa, whose eligibility is in the hands of the NCAA.
De Sousa is expected to be cleared for participation soon as the NCAA looks into amateurism issues following his graduation from IMG Academy. Preston has not played in a game all season as the NCAA examines KU’s findings into the financial situation involving a car Preston has been driving on campus this school year.
“We have not practiced two bigs at all this year until this past week,” Self said. “We’re a little confused. I’ll be honest with you. It’s confusing to us as a staff and I know it is to the players.
“You go into it thinking we’re gonna play these guys (who) get 50 or 70 percent reps at practice and don’t end up using them. That’s frustrating but that’s the way it is. Hopefully we’ll have some feedback — positive or negative — soon and see what the outcome is. If we knew what we were dealing with it’d be a lot better. We don’t really know what we’re dealing with from a timing standpoint.”
Asked if KU had been expecting word on Preston before the game, Self said: “Yeah, we were expecting something. I thought we’d get at least a direction, even if it’s not positive.”
Asked what he would do, Self said: “What can you do? We’re at the mercy of other people on this.”
Asked if the Preston situation would be resolved this week, Self added: “If not this week … yeah, it’s got to be. You’d think there’d be a positive or negative thing one way or another but there hasn’t been.”