After a hideous first half, the Jayhawks took control of a physical, frustrating game, and when their lead wilted in the final moments, their best player came through with the biggest shot of his career.
Frank Mason III, the undisputed leader of No. 7 Kansas, scored 30 points in Friday’s overtime loss to Indiana. He then flew over 5,000 miles to New York City, where the Jayhawks were facing the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils. All he did was go out and score 21 points, including the game-winning jump shot with less than two seconds left.
Kansas beat Duke, 77-75, in a thriller at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. And after the season-opening loss last week, it’s a big relief for the Jayhawks, who improve to 1-1 on the year.
The first half was atrocious for both squads. Duke jumped out to a quick 15-6 lead, but the Jayhawks climbed back behind driving layups from their guards. Foul trouble crippled both teams; 11 whistles were called before the first TV timeout. Kansas, which underwent lots of foul trouble in its opener to Indiana, was forced to play an improv lineup as the half expired. Mitch Lightfoot, Lagerald Vick, and Udoka Azubuike, all bench players, should all get enormous credit for holding Duke’s halftime lead to just five points.
After halftime, the Jayhawks seized control of the game. Josh Jackson, who had yet to make an impact in his career thus far, took control to begin the second half. Jackson and Mason combined to score 15 of the team’s first 17 points after intermission, lifting KU to its first sizable lead all evening. Over the first 9:02 of the second half, Kansas outscored Duke 24-9 to turn a five-point deficit into a 10-point lead.
The game was played between a six and 10 point window for most of the remainder of the half. Mason, Devonte’ Graham, and Jackson paced the Jayhawks, though Jackson was in and out of the game with foul trouble. In the first half, he was called for a technical foul after slapping the ball out of a Duke player’s hands, a seemingly pointless but consequential mistake. However, he came alive for KU when the team needed a player to step up, which is very encouraging.
With 1:54 left, the Jayhawks clinged to a 75-68 lead, but the Blue Devils scrapped back with a 7-0 run to tie the game. Frank Jackson nailed a game-tying three with just 20 seconds left, and Bill Self called a timeout to call up one last play. Everybody in the arena knew who was getting the ball, but instead of driving to the basket, Mason pulled up from the elbow and launched a step-back jumper. He nailed the shot with less than two seconds remaining, lifting the Jayhawks just past the Blue Devils, 77-75.
Mason was incredible, and he figures to contend in National Player of the Year races. But Azubuike just may have been Kansas’ most important player. For the second game in a row, Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg were in foul trouble all evening, but Azubuike stepped right in and immediately made an impact. Kansas lost to Indiana largely because of being out-rebounded by 11, but Azubuike snagged a game-high 12 boards in just his second collegiate game. This was the biggest reason the Jayhawks were able to out-rebound Duke by nine, 38-29.
Everyone will remember Mason for how well he played offensively, but man, his defense was as good as I’ve ever seen it. He completely shut down Grayson Allen, a superstar who many people consider to be the Player of the Year favorite. He absolutely smothered him and gave him no room to shoot the ball. Allen was just 4/15 from the floor, and he made just one of his seven threes.
Jackson played very well. He scored 15 points (7/9) shooting, but fouling out in large part due to a technical crippled his chances to produce more. The most encouraging thing about his game was that he did most of his damage driving to the rim. When he realizes that nobody can stay in front of him, he’s going to be a star on this stage.
It’s the first time the Jayhawks have defeated a No. 1 team in the AP Poll since 2008, when they beat North Carolina in the Final Four.
Had Kansas lost this game, it would have been unwise to panic, despite the 0-2 record. But after defeating No. 1 Duke in thrilling fashion, panic is the last thing on the Kansas fanbase’s mind. What a perfect time to come through with a much-needed victory.
- Frank Mason: 21 points (8/13 FG), five assists, and three rebounds in 35 minutes. Once again, he was the star of the game.
- Udoka Azubuike: six points (3/6 FG) and 12 rebounds in 15 minutes. I can’t under-emphasize his importance enough. Without his rebounding, Kansas would have been screwed. He’s also developing on the offensive end, and when he does…look out.
- Devonte’ Graham: 13 points (6/12 FG) in 40 minutes. For the second straight game, he was cramping up, but because the entire team was in foul trouble, he only got to sit for a total of eight seconds in the entire game.
- Landen Lucas: two points and one rebound in 14 minutes. He had three fouls in the first half, picked up his fourth right away in the second half, and didn’t play until the very end.
- Carlton Bragg: nine points and five rebounds in 16 minutes. He now has collected nine fouls in 34 minutes this year.
- Lagerald Vick: nine points and five rebounds in 31 minutes. It was undoubtedly the best game of his young career.
- Svi Mykhailiuk: two points in 28 minutes. His defense was very good.
- Mitch Lightfoot: no points and one rebound, but his defense was gigantic and he had an immense block of Grayson Allen at the end of the first half.
- Kansas made just two threes. Duke made eight. KU has been outscored by a whopping 42 points on three-pointers this year.
- KU: 51% FG, 12% from three (!), and 47% from the line (!!!). They somehow won.
- Kansas is 2-4 in Champions Classic games, but both wins have come against Duke.
- Next up: Sienna at home on Friday. It is the home opener. Maybe that won’t be as close.