Quick recap: Kansas rallies from double-digit deficit to survive Kentucky in the Champions Classic

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Kansas head coach Bill Self shouts from the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Kentucky was missing three seven-footers, two injured and one not yet eligible, in the paint, and that disparity was evident from the opening minutes Tuesday night at the United Center, where Hunter Dickinson practically scored a goal — at least, whenever he was able to snag a Ball in the paint.

The Wildcats got better at denying entry passes to Dickinson as the night went on, and their young, high-scoring guards troubled the Jayhawks at times in the first half. Freshman guard Rob Dillingham made four 3-pointers and then made another for fifth-year senior Antonio Reaves in just over two minutes to give Kentucky a huge first-half lead.

Tough finishes by KJ Adams Jr. gave the game a try. A spark for Kansas later gave the Jayhawks a brief advantage after they trailed by as many as 14. But point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. — who had previously opened his season with a game in which he didn’t hit a shot — saved KU with his offense down the stretch, accounting for eight points in a one-minute span to erase Kentucky’s lead and guide the Jayhawks to an 89-84 win on Tuesday.

Dickinson completed one of the best performances of his decorated college career with 27 points and 21 rebounds, and Harris scored a career-high 23 points.

“That was big boys basketball,” Harris said. “It’s always a fight, a dog fight every time we play. But they, I think, wanted me to beat them, and they left me open, and then I had to step up and shoot the ball.”

Freshman guard Jamari McDowell came into his first game of the night late, played some solid defense and made a pair of free throws to seal the game after Reed Sheppard missed a potential 3-pointer.

Kevin McCullar Jr., despite a quiet night offensively, finished with a triple-double — 12 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists — only the third in KU history and the second since the inception of the Tournament of Champions Classic (following Denzel Valentine in 2015). . Veteran Reeves led the young Wildcats with 24 points and Dillingham, Adou Thiero and Sheppard all reached double figures.

KU came in with a more experienced roster and initially seemed unfazed by the big stage of the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks opened the scoring when Harris, after a brief moment of hesitation as if he couldn’t believe how open he was, drained a 3. Adams fired a hook shot and Dickenson, who had been unstoppable on the glass early, pulled back on a rebound. As Kuwait University opened a 9-0 lead.

But Thiero nailed a 3 to stop the bleeding for the 17th-ranked Wildcats, Tre Mitchell scored on both a 3-point play and a more traditional transition 3-pointer, and the Jayhawks got sloppy repeatedly at the break to allow Kentucky to tie the game. The game is at 11-11.

KU briefly regained the momentum before consecutive 3s from Shepard off the bench gave Kentucky its first lead of the night. The Wildcats consistently took advantage of good ball movement from the outside to create open looks from deep. It all came to a head when Dillingham led a 15-5 run that put the Wildcats ahead and forced a Bill Self timeout.

The Jayhawks couldn’t do much to stem the tide heading into halftime, as a series of fouls against key KU players allowed Kentucky to extend its lead to nine points, then eventually double digits on a ferocious rebound by Thiero.

KU appeared to dissolve into utter chaos when it lost control of its defensive rebounding after a missed free throw by DJ Wagner. But Theroux fouled Dickinson, the quarterback made a pair of free throws and, after a Dillingham turnover, drained a 3 at the halftime buzzer to cut the deficit to 48-41 at intermission, allowing the Jayhawks to salvage some momentum.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had 20 or 20 before,” Dickinson said, after all was said and done. “But obviously, when you get the best PG in the country, the best ‘3’ in the country, they really help me a lot.”

“We want him to be a monster,” Harris added. That’s why we got it.”

Harris and Dickinson continued to fuel KU’s offense after the break, as a torrent of fouls turned the game into a stop-and-start affair, one that gradually began to favor the Jayhawks due to Adams’ heroics.

“KJ is the most athletic guy in the country, I feel like, when he comes out and plays hard, that’s all he’s got,” McCullar said.

McCullar gave KU a 64-62 lead when he finished off a drive between a pair of Kentucky defenders, and the teams traded buckets from close range back and forth and free throws down the stretch, with none of the shots hitting the point.

A couple tough plays with freshman Elmarco Jackson — a foul on Antonio Reeves in transition that led to a 3-point play, then a hit off the dribble by Reed Sheppard — allowed Kentucky to regain the lead by a sliver. Then Adams fouled out, robbing the Jayhawks of their momentum — until Harris stepped up.

The No. 1 Jayhawks (3-0) will take part in the Maui Invitational — which will be held in Honolulu this year — starting when they take on host Chaminade, a Division II school, Monday night at 8 p.m.

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written by Henry Greenstein

Henry is the sports editor for the Lawrence Journal-World and KUsports.com, and serves as a staff writer for KU while managing daily sports coverage. He previously worked as a sports reporter at The Bakersfield Californian and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis (BA in Linguistics) and Arizona State University (MA in Sports Journalism). Even though he’s a Los Angeles native, he’s often been told that he doesn’t give off a “California vibe,” whatever that means.

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