After scoring in single digits in Kansas’ last two games of the regular season, a downward-trending Malik Newman heard an earful from his coach at practice the past few days.
“A couple times he pulled me to the side. He told me to be aggressive,” Newman, KU’s 6-foot-3 sophomore combo guard from Jackson, Miss., said of coach Bill Self, after scoring a career-high 30 points in the Jayhawks’ 82-68 Big 12 quarterfinal victory over Oklahoma State on Thursday at the Sprint Center.
“Coach has been preaching that guards win postseason games,” Newman added after hitting 11 of 15 shots, including 4 of 6 threes and 4 of 6 free throws. “I wanted to come out today, make plays and help the team.”
Newman’s performance, which followed Saturday’s seven-point outing in an 18-point loss to the same Cowboys at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, helped the Jayhawks overcome the absence of injured big Udoka Azubuike and advance into Friday’s 6 p.m. semifinal against Kansas State.
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“The big fella, he’s a key part to our team,” Newman said of 7-foot sophomore Azubuike, who sprained the MCL in his left knee at practice Tuesday. He will miss the Big 12 Tournament then be re-examined Sunday with the hope he’ll be available for the NCAAs.
“But without him, we can play a little faster and be a little scrappier and the guards … we are able to dictate the offense a little bit more instead of trying to play through the big fella a bit more,” added Newman. He had 20 points at halftime in helping KU to a 43-42 lead.
Azubuike’s replacements fared well on Thursday.
Sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds while freshman forward Silvio De Sousa went for six points and eight boards. Football tight end/walk-on forward James Sosinski played the final minute the first half, picking up a foul as he protected Lightfoot and De Sousa, who each had two first-half fouls.
It added up to 14 points and 14 boards from KU’s bigs.
“We’d probably have sold out for that before the game,” Self said after his No. 9-ranked Jayhawks improved to 25-7.
Lightfoot said KU’s bigs “felt we had to play aggressive and couldn’t back down from the spotlight. Me and Silvio had to go out there and play. We had to do what our team needed. That was rebound. That was defend. That was score when we needed us to score, set good screens. I think we executed that well.”
It was all by design.
“Me and Silvio went down early to scouts (scouting report Thursday morning) and went over plays, what we were doing,” Lightfoot said after hitting 4 of 6 shots in 23 minutes. De Sousa was 3 of 5 shooting in 15 minutes.
“He’s been doing such a great job of being a sponge to all the information. I’m real proud of him,” Lightfoot added of De Sousa.
De Sousa and Lightfoot also received encouragement from Azubuike, who Self said was physically “feeling better” but offered no time frame for the big man’s return. He said on Wednesday the hope would be he’d be able to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“He did talk to me before the game. Even when he’s healthy we talk about how the game is going to be. He tells me to go grab every rebound,” De Sousa said of Azubuike. “Mitch talks to me, tells me to do this and that. It’s all about effort. When somebody is down we all have to pick him up. It’s what we did.”
Walk-on Sosinski was happy to contribute a minute to close the first half. KU led 43-42 at the break, putting the game away with a 14-0 second-half run that opened a 66-50 lead.
“The past two days I’ve been trying to prepare and be ready to go,” the 6-7, 250-pound Sosinski said. “I thought they played their butts off tonight,” he added of Lightfoot and De Sousa. “Silvio got it going. Mitch had two key charges late. I thought Doke’s attitude kept us ready. When he went down it was a negative. Since he’s been so positive with us, I thought our bigs were ready to go today.”
Sosinski did pick up a foul in his limited duty.
“I thought Silvio was bad early,” Self said of De Sousa, who missed a shot and picked up a foul after entering the game in the first half. Self immediately pulled him after the foul.
“I told our guys (assistants), ‘Let’s put James in before Silvio the second time.’ They were like, ‘No.’ I’m probably glad we made that decision (to put De Sousa back in; he played eight minutes, scoring four points with seven boards the first half). It’s nice to have James, but I never thought going into the season … you’ve got Udoka and Billy Preston, that James Sosinski might be important in the postseason,” Self added, smiling.
Svi Mykhailiuk scored 13 points, Lagerald Vick 11 and Devonté Graham 10 (with nine assists) as the Jayhawks won for the first time in three meetings against OSU (19-14) this season.
“We wanted to come out and be aggressive and play tough because the last two times we haven’t played tough against them,” Newman said.
Next up is Kansas State. KU has defeated the Wildcats twice this season.
“It’s an in-state rivalry. They have a good team. We know it’s a tough game but we’re looking forward to it,” Newman said.
KU, which hit 8 of 20 threes to OSU’s 5 of 22, set the school record for threes in a season with 319, passing the 318 made last season. The Jayhawks have attempted a school-record 802 threes, passing last season’s mark of 787. … Self on the semifinal matchup: “Going forward without Udoka, especially, we’re going to have to have some perimeter players play great, maybe two to play great to give us the best chance.” … Self on OSU perhaps making the NCAA Tournament. “I’m biased because they played us better than anybody has all year, twice, and I think they are without question a tournament team. I don’t think there is any doubt Mike (Boynton) and his team deserve to be in and I would be very disappointed if they’re not."