Seated at the end of the visitor’s bench wearing black Kansas Jayhawk warmups and blue shoes — as well as a black soft cast on his left hand — freshman center Udoka Azubuike watched attentively as his teammates claimed a 71-53 victory over UNLV on Thursday night at Thomas & Mack Center.
The No. 3-ranked Jayhawks, 11-1, won their first game without the 7-foot, 260-pounder, whose season is over because of a wrist injury incurred at practice on Tuesday.
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Kansas didn’t seem to miss its starting center against the Runnin’ Rebels — at least in the first half — thanks in large part to another freshman, fellow McDonald’s All-American Josh Jackson.
Jackson, a 6-foot-8 guard from Detroit, scored 21 points (off 9-of-16 shooting) and grabbed nine rebounds. His 21 points were one shy of his career high. Jackson had 14 of Kansas’ first 30 points as the Jayhawks rolled to a 30-12 lead and increased the margin to 42-20 at halftime. Jackson hit 6 of 7 shots the first half, including one three and a pair of spectacular dunks.
“Definitely we miss his presence,” Jackson said of Azubuike. “He rebounds a lot, blocks a lot of shots for us. It’s sad we don’t have him, but the next guy’s got to step up and we all have to do our part to help fill that big hole.”
Jackson hit just 3 of 9 shots in the second half as KU was outscored, 33-29.
“Fatigue set in a little bit the second half,” said Jackson, who exploded for 10 quick points, helping Kansas grab a 25-9 lead at 9:31 in the first half. He was 4 of 5 at that point with five rebounds.
“We didn’t have as many guys to play as we’d have liked (without Azubuike). We got the job done,” Jackson added.
Kansas was helped in the second half by junior Svi Mykhailiuk, who scored 20 points — three off a career high — on 8-of-14 shooting, including 4 of 6 from three. Mykhailiuk had identical stats in both halves — 4 of 7 shooting and 2 of 3 on three-pointers.
“He was amazing,” Jackson said. “We expect a lot out of Svi this year. Not just his shooting ability. Like you saw tonight he’s able to drive, create open shots for teammates He did a really good job tonight.”
Senior forward Landen Lucas helped make up for the loss of Azubuike, grabbing a season-high 12 rebounds to go with four points. Lucas was 2 of 2 from the free-throw line on a night Kansas struggled to 8-of-17 foul shooting. The Jayhawks hit 44.4 percent of their floor shots (including 7 of 20 threes) to UNLV’s 34.5 percent shooting. UNLV, 7-6, was 5 of 24 on three-pointers and 10 of 24 from line.
“I’ve been trying to improve my game throughout the season,” Lucas said. “Offensively I wasn’t very good at all. In order to help this team, the main focus is going to be rebounding. I thought I did pretty well on that side. It’s another step forward. I’m definitely looking forward to conference play.”
KU opens Big 12 Conference play at TCU on Dec. 30.
Kansas coach Bill Self approved of a first half against UNLV when the Jayhawks outscored the Rebels, 42-20. Self was not so impressed with the final 20 minutes. UNLV cut Kansas’ 24-point lead (44-20) to 13 points (51-38) six minutes into the second half and had the margin down to 12 (64-52) with 3:49 remaining.
“I don’t think much (of it),” Self said of the victory in Kansas’ first true road game of the season.
In all, 14,116 fans attended, maybe half of them Kansas fans. “I thought we played pretty well early. I thought we defended and rebounded well early. We didn’t finish the half well. They were better than us the second half.
“It was a good road win. But we had a chance to play much better tonight.”
On Jackson’s performance in the first half, Self said: “He was the best player early in the game. He’s been good early in games for us.”
Self noted that Mykhailiuk was Kansas’ best player in the second half on a night Frank Mason (13 points, eight assists) and Devonté Graham (four points, three assists) struggled.
“Frank and Devonté had the worst games they probably had this year. Frank got nicked up (after getting fouled hard early; he still played 35 minutes) and Devonté couldn’t make a shot (2 of 9 in 30 minutes). I don’t think this is how you are supposed to close a game,” Self said.
At any rate, the Jayhawks are 1-0 without big man Azubuike, who won’t play in a game again until next season.
“We need all the guys to step up, especially Dwight,” Mykhailiuk said of junior Dwight Coleby, who picked up two fouls in just one minute of play and didn’t return. Self said after the game Mitch Lightfoot (two points and zero rebounds in six minutes) figures to be the third big for now behind Lucas and Carlton Bragg.
“Josh is going to play the 4; Lagerald (Vick) is going to play the 4 some,” Mykhailiuk added. “We all have to step up, be together and be us.”
Vick had a second-half block and finished with five points.