LEXINGTON, Ky. — Earlier this season, the Kansas Jayhawks defied the odds with a win over No. 1 Duke at Madison Square Garden.
Saturday night, hampered by depth issues and against a fellow top-five team in the nation, the Jayhawks did the same thing. No. 2 Kansas triumphed at Rupp Arena, defeating No. 4 Kentucky 79-73.
Senior guard Frank Mason III finished with 21 points in the statement win. Kentucky also had a difficult time containing freshman guard Josh Jackson, who impressed on a national stage with 20 points.
"Of course I know it means a lot to the fans of both schools and certainly there's a lot of tradition on the line," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But I thought our experience... Frank and Devonte' and Josh plays much older than his years, and Svi and Landen [Lucas] — I thought those guys played with pretty good poise down the stretch."
Kansas shot into a 10-point lead in the final five minutes. The team defended that lead, which stood anywhere from 10 to four points, until the end of the game.
The team erased any worry of foul trouble, but senior center Landen Lucas took to the bench with 2:24 remaining. For almost all game, and especially during the second half, Kansas remained smart and careful on defense.
Standout Kentucky guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk could be contained, but it was a number of threes from Kentucky forward Derek Willis that kept Kentucky within striking distance. Willis finished with 18 points and 5-of-6 from three-point range.
Fox and Monk finished with 10 and 18 points, respectively. At ESPN's College GameDay’s showing in Rupp Arena the morning of the game, pundits debated whether Monk could score over 25.
Kansas’ confidence seemed to wax and wane with every possession of the second half. At one point, Jackson threw up a hesitant three-point attempt that missed. Kansas renewed its lease on the win on another, when Mason caught an alert pass from junior guard Svi Mykhailiuk and hit a wide open three.
The Jayhawks' three-point shooting came alive in the second half. The Kansas backcourt found a way to move the ball freely and it paid off with a 58.8 percent shooting mark in the second half.
Kansas only shot 26 percent from three on the night, but its overall mark was hampered by poor shooting in the first half. Kansas didn't make a single three in the first half before catching fire in the second.
"I find that, at time, when I'm practicing shooting with the guys and they're all making threes that it gets kind of contagious," Jackson said. "So I feel like that opened it up for us a little bit — it was contagious."
Kentucky led by as many as 12 points midway through the first half. Self reverted to a zone defense and limited the damage. Kansas fired back to within five by halftime.
"Oh, I thought this could get ugly really fast," Self said. "I thought it was already ugly. I don't think they shot the ball unbelievably well by any stretch early, but we didn't shoot it at all and we played tight and they had all the momentum."
Self managed his team’s lack of depth, exacerbated by the suspension of sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr., in the first half by throwing freshman forward Mitch Lightfoot and junior forward Dwight Coleby into the game for early minutes. Coleby stayed in the game to relieve Lucas for a total of 10 minutes.
"I think our guys are really excited—not that we played really great,” Self said. “I think we were really excited because we didn’t play great and fought through and ended up winning the game.”
Due to a loss earlier in the week to No. 18 West Virginia, Kansas is likely to fall in the rankings. However, the win over Kentucky will be a boost.
Things won't get any easier for the Jayhawks as they move forward into a difficult home tilt against No. 5 Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday, Feb. 1.