The Kansas Jayhawks overcame a sluggish start, a hot shooting day from an old foe and a brutal day at the free throw line to pick up their ninth Big 12 win of the season, downing the Oklahoma Sooners 71-69.
A trio of standout individual performances helped pull the Jayhawks from the brink of a second-straight loss, with junior guard Christian Braun, sophomore forward Jalen Wilson and freshman forward Zach Clemence each playing a key role in the victory.
Braun and Wilson paired up for an electrifying second half offensively, combining for 27 of KU’s 40 points after halftime. Wilson was the Jayhawks’ best offensive player for the balance of the game, leading all scorers with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 5-of-6 from the free throw line, the latter of which was by far the best mark on the team. He also had 14 after halftime.
Wilson has now scored in double figures in four straight games and eight times in Big 12 play, something he only did once before conference games began.
“When he’s aggressive, that’s what’s best for us,” Braun said.
Most of Braun’s points also came in the second half, when he poured in 13 of his 18 total points for the game. While he converted several key field goals down the stretch, he also struggled to knock down free throws, going just 4-of-8 for the game.
After a slow start to the game, which saw KU trailing for nearly 14 minutes of game time despite shooting the ball well, Braun took it upon himself to kickstart the offense.
“I think I was doing an OK job on defense, but we needed somebody to take it up a notch on offense,” Braun said.
Kansas coach Bill Self echoed the team’s need for more second half energy and how vital is was for Braun to provide it.
“Our team was flat, we played with no energy and we looked really slow,” Self said. “I thought that CB was a big key the second half.”
It likely wouldn’t have ended in a two-point margin of victory for Kansas had the Jayhawks converted more at the line, where they shot just 56.5% (13-of-23) as a team.
At the 1:32 mark near the end of the game, KU took an eight-point lead after a pair of free throws by senior guard Ochai Agbaji. From that point forward, though, Oklahoma closed the game on a 10-4 run, propelled by the Jayhawks’ struggles at the stripe. After that pair by Agbaji, KU made just four of its last eight tries and Oklahoma made four consecutive field goals to trim the deficit to one possession.
OU’s Jordan Goldwire got one last shot off at the end of the game but missed the mark, sealing the win for KU.
“We’ve just got to get in the gym,” Braun said. “That’s two games in a row we’ve struggled with it, but today we got the win and that’s all that matters.”
Clemence provided the other key spark for the Jayhawks, and did so despite missing more than a month of action. He hadn’t played since a loss to Texas Tech on Jan. 8 and, according to Self, only practiced two days this week. But, when he got his opportunity to step up, he made it count.
KU trailed by two with just over seven minutes to play when Wilson found Clemence at the top of the key, where he drilled an open three pointer to give the Jayhawks the lead, which they held for the rest of the game.
“That’s my favorite shot, that pick and pop, so I was confident shooting it,” Clemence said.
Wilson shared Clemence’s confidence in that situation.
“He’s always confident in practice, so I had no problem throwing it to him,” Wilson said.
Clemence was the only Jayhawk who scored or grabbed a rebound off the bench, and he was also KU’s only answer for Oklahoma forward Tanner Groves, who had been on an offensive heater prior to Clemence taking the floor.
Groves, who struggled in the first meeting of the year between KU and OU but gave the Jayhawks all they could handle with Eastern Washington in last year’s NCAA tournament, scored 19 points and hit four three pointers for the Sooners on Saturday.
He didn’t score another point after Clemence subbed in.
“He was the only big who could hedge a ball screen and get back to Groves,” Self said, adding: “Our best chance to win was Zach.”
The opportunity in Saturday’s win was a long time coming for Clemence, but he said after the game that despite coming in cold, he was always ready to step in.
“Honestly, just being out four weeks really gets to you,” Clemence said.
Thanks to the narrow victory, KU sits at 9-2 in Big 12 play, still a half game ahead of Baylor in the standings after the No. 10 Bears walloped No. 20 Texas this weekend. The Jayhawks will look to keep their hold on the top of the table Monday night when the Oklahoma State Cowboys come to town.
“The most important thing for us the next couple games is to protect home court,” Braun said.
Albeit by the skin of their teeth, the Jayhawks accomplished that mission on Saturday.