FORT WORTH, TEXAS — The Kansas Jayhawks are heading back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018 after escaping against the Creighton Bluejays 79-72 in their second-round matchup.
“Escaping” is the operative word, because the banged-up ninth-seeded Bluejays gave the top-seeded Jayhawks everything they could handle.
Arguably the most impressive fact of the whole game was KU going into halftime with a one-point advantage after Creighton, a team which entered the game shooting just 30.7% from three-point range for the season, went 8-of-15 from beyond the arc in the opening 20 minutes. What’s more, the Bluejays knocked down seven of their first 10 triples to open the game.
“Creighton played great. Shot unbelievable from the arc. And we didn’t do a very good job defending it the first half,” Self said. “But, you’ve got to win games when it’s kind of ugly. And I don’t know that we could have won this game two months ago playing this way. So I’m proud of our guys.”
Enter senior guard Remy Martin, who was the Jayhawks’ saving grace in the first half. He led all scorers with 16 points at the break, going 6-of-9 from the floor in the process. The rest of the KU roster shot just 8-25 (32%) from the floor in the opening session.
While the shooting luck dwindled for Creighton after halftime, Kansas still wasn’t able to pull away. Even when the Jayhawks would pulled ahead by nine points late in the second half, the Bluejays found a way to respond, quickly closing the gap to a single point after a 15-7 run with under a minute to play.
A costly turnover was the stroke of luck KU needed to finally put the game away for good, with senior guard Ochai Agbaji stealing a bad pass and cruising to the basket for an uncontested dunk.
“We just knew, there was just those possessions that we knew we had to get, even late in the stretch, whether it was a rebound or executing a play, just to break away from getting in that range of them being close,” Agbaji said.
It was a tough afternoon offensively for Agbaji, who didn’t have any field goals in the first half and finished the game just 5-of-14 from the field, though he did end up with 15 points and eight boards.
Even so, the consensus All-American never lost confidence that his shots would start to fall.
“Even in the first half, everyone was like, ‘Keep taking those shots. They’re all good looks.’ Even coach Self was saying those were good looks,” Agbaji said. “So when I know they have that confidence in me, it makes it a lot more easier to step up and make those shots and not a lot of pressure.”
Martin racked up a team-high 20 points in the victory, a season high for him as well.
“There’s nothing to it. I just keep it simple. I just go out there and try to give it my all and play,” Martin said. “I wasn’t going out there and trying to do anything different. They were giving me shots and I just had to knock it in in the first half.”
For Creighton, its hot shooting start didn’t completely die out, but it changed noticeably in the second half. Even with a couple crucial long-range shots, the Bluejays went just 4-of-13 from three in the second half, and just 5-of-18 after their first 10 attempts.
Not only that, but coach Greg McDermott’s group put forth their valiant effort while shorthanded. Sophomore center Ryan Kalkbrenner was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury on Thursday, and they’ve been without freshman point guard Ryan Nembhard since last month due to a wrist injury.
“As I told them in the locker room, there’s a part of me that would like to cry,” McDermott said. “But that’s for selfish reasons, because I’m not quite ready for this to be over. But I’m also really glad it took place. It has been an incredible journey with this group. And I think today embodied what they’ve been about all season long.”
For Self, who spoke earlier this week about the challenges in preparing for a team that just lost a key piece, said that no matter what the other team does or throws at you, you can’t apologize for winning NCAA tournament games.
“I’m a little relieved,” Self said, “but I’m also very happy. We’ve won some games in the NCAA tournament that were a lot like this, and we’ve also lost some games that were a lot like this. So we’ll take it.”
The Jayhawks will return home to Lawrence, where Self said the players will get at least one day off from practice, for heading north to Chicago for the second weekend of the tournament. Kansas will play either 4-seed Providence or 12-seed Richmond on Friday.
Click below to hear what Bill Self and the Jayhawks had to say following their 79-72 win over Creighton.