Kansas holds off Eastern Kentucky 80-69 in NCAA opener

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03/21/2014 4:57 PM

05/16/2014 12:38 PM

Andrew Wiggins was sleepy. It was late on Friday morning, hours before No. 2 seed Kansas would board a bus and drive a few blocks to the Scottrade Center for its NCAA Tournament opener.

While the hours passed, the Jayhawks settled in to to watch the latest upset in a wild NCAA Tournament. At that moment, it was No. 3 seed Duke, falling to a little school named Mercer, but it really could have been anyone.

All day Thursday and into Friday, Kansas’ players had kept tabs on a stomach-dropping slate of buzzer-beaters and thrillers, and here was the latest one.

Here it was, the perfect opportunity for Kansas to take in one final lesson before tipping off against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky in the afternoon.

“I didn’t see the ending,” Wiggins would say. “I was sleeping. It’s just something I’ll do if I feel a little tired.”

It was late on Friday afternoon, nearly 45 minutes after Kansas had survived the day, fighting off Eastern Kentucky in an 80-69 victory. If Wiggins and the Jayhawks missed any lessons in the morning, they now wore the scars and hardened skin from their own early-round scare.

“All the teams in the tournament are good,” Wiggins said. “Even to put a seed on them — a one-seed, two-seed, a 15-seed, all the teams are good. Any team is capable of beating any team at any given moment, so that’s why every team has to bring it.”

A few feet away, senior forward Tarik Black wore a few splatters of blood on his white shorts. To his right sat sophomore forward Jamari Traylor, who had carried the Jayhawks through an unanticipated battle with 17 points and 14 rebounds, both career highs.

For the second straight year, the Jayhawks had escaped a early-round dogfight with a directional school from Kentucky. Last year, it was a seven-point victory against Western Kentucky.

But even after trailing by as many as nine in the first half Friday — and by three points midway through the second half — the Jayhawks were confident they could survive.

“There’s bracket-busters every year,” Black said. “You watch those games, you feel like, ‘I feel bad for those teams.’ ”

The Jayhawks didn’t want to be one of “those” teams.

Kansas, 25-9, moves on to play at 11:15 a.m. Sunday against No. 10 seed Stanford, which handled New Mexico 58-53 in a defensive struggle Friday. The game will air on CBS.

One more victory, and the Jayhawks will be in the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season. But with freshman center Joel Embiid out until at least next week because of a stress fracture in his back, they know they must be better, more sound in all facets.

“The first game was pretty wild,” said KU junior guard Naadir Tharpe, who had just four points while playing 21 minutes. “But the second half, we just did what we needed to do.”

This was not the expected blueprint. Kansas clanked all seven of its three-point attempts in the game and turned it over 13 times in the first half while falling behind 23-14 in the opening minutes.

They played sloppy basketball, the kind of ragged performance that can wind up on a “One Shining Moment” montage. Eastern Kentucky, meanwhile, had the formula for so many March moments. Quick guards. High-pressure defense. And a machine-gun attack from the outside.

Senior guard Glenn Cosey hit four of his first five three-pointers, and even forward Jeff Johnson, a rotund 250-pound gunner, was hitting shots. The Colonels were 12 of 31 from three-point range.

“We were only outscored 36-0 from behind the arc,” Self said. “So you got to make a lot of layups — you got to make at least 18 — if you’re going to make up for that.”

But if this tournament is about survival, the Jayhawks showcased two weapons that could help them surge deep into March.

The first was depth. Before the game, Self found little-used freshman guard Conner Frankamp and told him he’d be going to him early against Eastern Kentucky. Frankamp responded with a steadying influence off the bench, scoring 10 points with zero turnovers in 25 minutes.

“He is a calming influence,” Self said, “and it is probably not a coincidence when he played our team may have had two or three turnovers total when he was actually in the game.”

The second was sheer athleticism awe. The Jayhawks finished with a season-high 11 dunks while outscoring Eastern Kentucky 54-20 in the paint. Traylor, Black and Perry Ellis owned the glass. Wiggins threw down a barrage of lob dunks, finishing with 19 points and four rebounds in his first NCAA Tournament game.

“There's jitters for everybody,” Self said. “These guys had jitters, and I thought we responded as a group and I thought he responded very well.”

In the moments after the game, Black embraced Traylor on the floor.

“Thank you for the win,” Black said.

And Wiggins, exhausted from the victory and all the cameras, sneaked behind a group of reporters and sprawled out on a training table in the middle of the locker room.

One game down. Time to rest again.