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No. 7 Kansas earns gritty 65-62 win over No. 20 Kentucky in Champions Classic

Kansas sophomore Christian Braun finishes off a dunk during a game against Kentucky Tuesday night during the Champions Classic inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Dec. 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Phil Ellsworth of ESPN.

Kansas senior Marcus Garrett was the source of some serious confusion prior to Tuesday’s 65-62 win by No. 7 Kansas over No. 20 Kentucky at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

During his pregame radio interview with color analyst Greg Gurley, KU coach Bill Self said that Garrett, who had been dealing with a non-COVID-19 illness, would not play against the Wildcats.

That interview was recorded around 5:20 p.m., however, and in the three-plus hours between then and tip time, Garrett did enough to show he could play and was in the starting lineup when the game began.

After the victory, in which Garrett scored eight points — all of them in the first half on 4-of-7 shooting — KU coach Bill Self explained the sequence of events that led to Garrett's odd night.

"He told us at shoot-around that he couldn't suit up," Self said of Garrett during a postgame Zoom interview from Indianapolis. "He wasn't gonna suit up. He didn't want to go through warm-ups. He had a real problem with headaches and the bright lights and his stomach was messed up and he (couldn't) get his wind."

From there, Self said Garrett he thought the KU senior talked with his uncle back home in Dallas — not at Self's request — and emerged from the conversation with a change of heart about how the night would go.

"Next thing you know you know he pulled a Willis Reed," said Self, referencing the former New York Knicks star who played hurt in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. "I didn't know he was going to try until we got on the bus."

During the ride to the arena, Self said he told Garrett he didn't have to play.

"And he was like, 'Nah, I want to try," Self recalled. "He didn't play great by Marcus standards, but we wouldn't have won the game unless he was out there. I'm happy for him, proud of him. He's so tough."

In addition to a career night from redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson, who scored a game-high 23 points and added 10 rebounds on 8-of-16 shooting, Garrett’s steady play early helped keep Kansas alive in the latest battle of blue blood programs.

"I knew (Marcus) was going to play," Wilson said after the victory. "He's a fighter, one of the hardest guys I've ever played basketball with. He works harder than anybody almost, and I never doubted that he was going to play at all."

Asked after the game if KU's medical team had ruled out COVID-19, Self said Garrett produced a negative COVID-19 test before Tuesday's game.

"He started feeling bad Friday, we had COVID tests Saturday and we COVID tested him today, too," Self said. "His issues that he has is not that. So hopefully we can get him back (home) and do whatever docs do to figure out what it is and get him on the right meds and get him feeling better."

Self said Garrett had both antigen and PCR testing in recent days.

Junior guard Ochai Agbaji agreed and said the thought of Garrett sitting never crossed his mind.

"I figured he was going to at least give it a try," Agbaji said after scoring 17 points, including five big ones late that put Kansas in control. "We knew throughout practice (on Monday) that he was struggling with a sickness. But he showed a lot today, just being the leader and being on the floor. We need him on the floor."

Despite Garrett’s three first-half turnovers in 16 first-half minutes, the senior’s ability to slice through the lane and get to the rim helped Kansas dig out of a 13-point hole and kept KU close when the Jayhawks desperately needed something to go right against the bigger, more athletic Wildcats (1-2).

During a first half that saw the Jayhawks open the game 2-of-14 from the floor, Garrett’s ability to hit four of the seven shots he attempted helped keep Kansas close.

The fact that the production came with Garrett fighting an illness made it all the more impressive. Self said Garrett had trouble catching his breath late in last week’s game against Saint Joseph’s in Fort Myers, Fla., and the issue followed him to Indianapolis.

Garrett could be seen throughout Tuesday’s game massaging his chest and stomach and trying to take in as much oxygen as he could, both on the bench when he was out and on the court during stoppages in play.

KU cut Kentucky’s 13-point leads (26-13 and 28-15) to as low as five (34-29) late in the half, setting the stage for a strong second half. KU trailed 35-29 at the half.

For the second game in a row, redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris came in off the bench to positively impact KU’s play. Harris dished two assists and swiped two steals in 12 first-half minutes.

The Jayhawks also did their part to help Kentucky take control of the game in the first 10 minutes, turning it over eight times in their first 19 possessions.

After one turnover, a throw-away under the basket by Jalen Wilson that led to a dunk for 10, Self called an immediate timeout and stood during the break with his hands on his hips while addressing his team.

The Jayhawks soon found that the easiest way to improve their field goal percentage was to attempt shots right at the rim.

Garrett scored a lay-in on a drive through the lane on one possession and flushed a breakaway dunk on the next possession after a steal by Harris. That cut the Kentucky lead to 17-9 and forced UK coach John Calipari to call timeout.

For the third game in a row, Wilson did a lot of the dirty work for the Jayhawks, holding down the post when the Jayhawks went small and scrapping with the bigger Wildcats for extra possessions and rebounds.

Wilson’s offensive rebound and put-back and free throw two possessions later pulled the Jayhawks within two (38-36) with 14:24 to play. Shortly after that, he attacked the rim again and drew another foul. He again knocked one of two charity shots to pull KU within a point with 13:37 to play. Wilson, who made his second start of the season, scored six of KU’s first eight points of the second half.

That stretch helped Kansas in more ways than just putting points on the board. Just seven minutes into the second half, three different Wildcats had already recorded three fouls, including 7-foot center Olivier Sarr.

Sarr’s fourth foul came in transition on a run to the rim by Christian Braun (8 points, 13 rebounds) with 12:46 to play. The two free throws that followed gave Kansas its first lead (39-38) since 5-2 in the opening minutes.

Related document

Kansas 65, Kentucky 62 ( .PDF )

As the second half went on, Tuesday’s game began to resemble KU’s win over Saint Joseph’s from last week. Both featured a rough first half and KU finding its footing on offense while also figuring out how to lock in defensively in the second half.

Kentucky scored just five points in the first 10 minutes of Tuesday’s second half.

"I thought our defense, for the most part, was pretty good all game long," Self said after the win. "Even when they scored and had a big lead, it wasn't because of our defense, it was because we were so inept offensively. I think we had like five points 10 minutes in, so you should be behind double figures if that's the case."

After that miserable start to the final 20 minutes, the Wildcats got themselves going with their own defense and then hit just their second 3-pointer of the game to go up four with 6:10 to play. Both teams made just two of their first 16 3-point attempts in this one.

Kentucky freshman Isaiah Jackson recorded eight blocks through the game’s first 35 minutes.

Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the second half to further cement his strong night and help pull Kansas back even with 4:50 to play.

"I thought he played terrific," Self said of Wilson, who missed all but a couple of minutes of his freshman season with a broken ankle. "I thought he was great."

Agbaji, who was solid early to keep Kansas in it, finally got back into the offensive flow with a 3-pointer with 2:42 to play and a breakaway dunk after another steal by Harris.

Agbaji’s mini-run put Kansas up 60-55 with 2:26 to play.

Like many people in the KU locker room, Agbaji was impressed with Wilson's big night.

"Just his energy and everything he was doing, just being aggressive, attacking, rebounding the ball, I thought that that that brought confidence to him," Agbaji said when asked what stood out about Wilson's career night. "Him and CB (Braun) were great on the boards, we needed them, (and Jalen) delivered today so I'm proud of him."

Self said Tuesday's victory, which came at the end of an unusual eight-day road trip to open the season, would go down as "a nice feather in our cap."

"I thought it was a great win," Self said. "You know, Kentucky didn't play particularly well, we didn't play well, obviously, but you know it's early in the season, it's a different time, it's a different road trip, everything's different. And for us to get this way and I just know they're all going to add up the same at the end of the year."


Bryce Landon

I have to think Bill Self is beaming with pride for his players. On a night where the Jayhawks labored on offense and struggled to get anything going, they made just enough crucial plays to get the win. That's called toughness, and Self takes great pride in having a tough team.

In some ways, the game reminded me of Kansas' 2012 NCAA Tournament game against Purdue, when the Boilermakers controlled the game most of the way, only for Kansas to out-tough Purdue in the final minutes and come away with a win that would launch the Jayhawks all the way to the national title game.


4 months, 2 weeks ago


Bryce Landon

Here's a great quote by Bill Self from the Topeka Capital-Journal.

“That was ugly, but the key to having great seasons isn’t winning when you play good. If you’ve got good players and you play well you’re probably going to win most of those games.The key to having great seasons is somehow winning games when you’re not good. And we’ve done that a ton in the time that I’ve been here or we’ve been here at KU, and tonight was another one of those. When the ball is not going in the hole and you have to shoot 3s and they’re blocking everything you’re putting up on the glass it seems like early on, you know, those are hard games to win. So I’m really pleased with how tough we played.”

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Adam Bengtson

I just want to note that McCormick was 1-9 and I don't think I saw him shoot a jump shot.

I think Josh Jackson was the last player as aggressive I have seen Wilson

I just hope these next 3 cupcake games we play everyone to get them some time and confidence. Cannot rely I just 6 guys at year end.

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Tim Orel

That third game, while at AFH, is against Creighton, the #9 team in the country. Not a cupcake, imo. AFH is a better place to play with 16,300 fans screaming. We'll see how fired up KU can get with just sneaker squeaks providing the background noise.

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Tony Bandle

Random Thoughts:

1] Not exactly a clinic on how to play basketball but any night that KU beats Kentucky and Duke loses at home has to be special!!

2] Mitch might as well grab that extra year and set an all-time record for games as a Hawk.

3] Wilson looks like the real deal.

4] One encouraging note, we won with Braun and McCormick combined shooting about 3 for 100!!

5] If this UK bunch stays together for three years, they could win a NC.

6] With Nova and Duke losing, we'll back at least at #5 and maybe #4.

7] Even if basketball is played COVID style, it's such a relief from the election, the pandemic
and everybody being mad at each other,

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Bryce Landon

If I may add to your random thoughts,

8] What did Bill Self say to get T'ed up early in the second half? I was live-streaming the radio broadcast of the game, and Brian Hanni and Greg Gurley were outraged by Self getting a technical.

9] Anyone else notice that Tristan Enaruna didn't sniff the floor again after letting a UK free throw shooter rebound his own miss and score?

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Len Shaffer

To follow up on Tony's thoughts, no matter how ugly the game is, any win against the Evil Empire is beautiful. With as many good shooters as KU has, we probably won't have another game this year where we shoot this badly. Add to that the fact that we ended up out-rebounding them, and it makes this win even more special.

This team has the potential to be very good by the end of the year.

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Barry Weiss

Those are crazy stats ...our shooting was horrible both from the field and at the line, and KY's length and the way they rejected so many of our shots makes the rebound stat unbelievable. We do need to get DMac up and running as I'm not sure the 5 guard line up will be enough in conference play. But then again, it beat a long, tall team tonight. crazy.

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Chad Smith

It was painful to watch. But a win is a win. Over Kentucky, I'll take it every day of the week. DMac definitely is going to have to get better at finishing inside. They did double him a lot in the 2nd half. He made some good passes out of it. But I actually agree with what Vitale said on the call, when he said just take it to the rack. Sure you get blocked sometimes, but he also drew fouls when he did it. Harris showed well again, so that gives me hope in case Garrett has to sit out for whatever reason.

Still early, but our perimeter defense looks great. The inside will be a challenge all season long especially against a team like West Virginia who deliberately pound the ball inside with multiple bigs. I'm sure KU will figure out a way to mitigate this, but now we are seeing that not having De Sousa in there to bang around is hurting us a bit. Mitch Lightfoot anyone?

Or how about Muscadin for 10 minutes a game? Just to block shots and rebound? I'm throwing darts now.......

4 months, 2 weeks ago


Armen Kurdian

Good win, both teams left a lot of points on the floor. UK couldn't hit a three, we missed a lot of free throws and shots under the basket. I too was reminded of 2012 when UK swatted and blocked a lot of our shots in the paint, but I'm not sure if they just got a little tired or we shifted things up enough to start getting a few of those to fall.

Kentucky's going to be fine. KU is going to lose some games this year at home I feel specfically because of the lack of crowd...COVID is going to be a bit of an equalizer for lower-caliber teams.

Still as everyone says, any day KU beats UK is a good day indeed.

4 months, 2 weeks ago


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