In an ideal NCAA Tournament world, Kansas would not have needed this.
In the scripted version of such things, the No. 1 seed does not need its all-everything senior center to carry it to a victory over a No. 16 seed that had not beaten a ranked team in three years.
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But then again, Friday was not a neat or coherent day in the world of college hoops. This was a day of chaos. And in the middle of chaos, Kansas senior Jeff Withey emerged to exert a little order and stability.
In a nervous and tense night at the Sprint Center, Withey finished with 17 points, six rebounds and seven blocks as Kansas survived a scare in a 64-57 victory over No. 16 seed Western Kentucky.
“They kind of surprised us how good they were,” Withey said. “We definitely took them lightly, being a No. 1 seed (and) they came out and fought us real hard.
“We can’t let that happen.”
The Jayhawks move on to take on No. 8 seed North Carolina at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday. But first, they had to survive. This had never happened, of course. A No. 16 had never toppled a No. 1. And on Friday, the Jayhawks could never quite get comfortable. Kansas freshman guard Ben McLemore finished with just 11 points in NCAA Tournament debut. And the Jayhawks finished with 17 turnovers and zero three-pointers. (They clanked all six attempts.)
“We were a little tight,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And sometimes playing at home puts a little pressure on you.”
If Western Kentucky’s forward George Fant (10 points) hadn’t have fouled out early, or if the Hilltoppers had made some three-pointers — they were just three of 20 — the final result may have really been in doubt. Then again, Kansas wasn’t any better from the outside.
“We made one shot for the game from outside of 2 feet,” Self said.
Even after a Withey-infused run had given the Jayhawks a 10-point lead in the final stretch, the Hilltoppers pushed Kansas to the final minute, knocking down a three-pointer that cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 59-55 with 25 seconds left.
The Jayhawks had gained some separation with just more than seven minutes left. Withey had blocked Western Kentucky on one end, and then converted a layup on the other. And the bucket pushed the Jayhawks’ lead to 47-41 with 6:41 left. And for a moment, Kansas could sneak a breath.
McLemore would add a driving layup that stretched the lead to 50-42 with 5:13 left, and Withey would add another bucket after recording his seventh block with just under five minutes remaining.
In a five-minute span, Withey had scored seven points as the Jayhawks used a 9-3 run to take a 52-42 advantage. And without Withey, Kansas would have been in major trouble.
“We probably wouldn’t have won that game,” sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe said.
All day long, all across the bracket, the top seeds had fallen on hard times. Chaos theory reigned. And as Self had said before the madness began, this did indeed feel like a “unique tournament.”
In a faraway gym in Philadelphia, No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast flattened No. 2 Georgetown, the third No. 15 to strike down a No. 2 in the past two years. But here in Kansas City, the floor of the Sprint Center became Ground Zero for upset alerts. No. 12 seed Ole Miss had opened the day by chasing down No. 5 seed Wisconsin. And No. 13 La Salle had used a first-half blitz to shock No. 4 Kansas State.
If Kansas was unaware of these topsy-turvy developments, the Kansas fans inside Sprint Center certainly knew. Earlier in the day, a handful of Jayhawk fans had even politely encouraged rival K-State while the Wildcats’ comeback fell short.
“I feel like everybody was thinking about (those losses),” Tharpe said. “And that’s not how we should be playing.”
Western Kentucky hadn’t beaten a ranked team in three years, but here the Hilltoppers were, hanging with a blue-blood program for more than 35 minutes.
The first half had been a 20-minute symbol of nerves and tightness. The Jayhawks had played slipshod and careless, turning the ball over nine times in the first half. McLemore was nowhere to be seen, finishing with just an alley-oop dunk before intermission. And Western Kentucky’s defense helped key a 6-0 run that turned a 12-10 KU lead into an 18-14 deficit with 9:22 left in the half.
Withey picked up his second foul in the final minutes of the first half, and the Hilltoppers held a 31-30 lead at halftime.
By the end, this night was definition of “survive and advance.” On Sunday, the Jayhawks will return to the floor against No. 8 seed North Carolina and old program patriarch Roy Williams. And maybe things will be different. Maybe they will handle the pressure. Maybe McLemore will get loose. And maybe Withey will continue to dominate. On Friday night, that was the Jayhawks’ best hope.
“I think, personally, it’s just human nature to not be as prepared for a smaller team,” senior guard Elijah Johnson said. “A North Carolina-Kansas game, I think everybody’s gonna be ready to play. There’s just gonna be so much juice in the building. Roy’s coming back. There’s gonna be a lot of fans pumped up. And I think we’ll be pumped up.”