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Jayhawks Narrowly Escape Embarrassing Loss Against UTEP

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Well that’s one way to wrap up the regular season.

NCAA Basketball: Texas-El Paso at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Brutal.

Those concerned that Kansas might come out lacking focus, given the unusual circumstances of a last-minute game against a bad mid-major opponent, were definitely right headed into this one. KU’s inability to shoot has reached a point where it’s almost laughable. UTEP (yeah, UTEP) came out and went on an 11-2 run to start this game, while the Jayhawks made one of 11 shot attempts during that time. During that stretch, David McCormack looked more like December David McCormack, missing his first two shots and contributing an early turnover.

Things stayed pretty putrid through the remainder of the first half. By the under-4 timeout, UTEP had built their lead up to double digits, 28-16. You can’t really blame it on a lucky start for the Miners either. They were 4-10 from three at that point, and shooting 40% from inside the arc as well. Not exactly on fire. Kansas just continued to show that are a deeply flawed, perhaps downright bad, offense. Without McCormack playing in the form he’s shown lately, there was no offense to be had anywhere, outside of a few Ochai Agbaji shots that fell.

At halftime, it was a game that UTEP was thoroughly dominating, with Kansas down 34-20. At home.

To a 12-10 team from Conference USA.

In March, where every result is magnified.

Offensively, Kansas did what Kansas does: they missed a ton of shots. They were a touch under 30% from the floor and 22% from three. Defensively they made a few more mistakes than normal, but still held UTEP under 40% overall, and the Miners were only 33% from three. No bad luck, no bad breaks, just a bad mid-major coming into Allen Fieldhouse and trashing the Jayhawks for a half.

Whatever Bill Self said in the locker room had no effect. Both teams looked exactly the same out of the halftime break. By the under-12, UTEP had continued to casually hold Kansas at arm’s length, up 50-38, and absolutely nothing was working.

From there, Kansas flashed some reasons for hope. An 11-2 run for the Jayhawks pulled them to within six and forced a UTEP timeout with 9:24 remaining. Out of the timeout they forced a turnover, but had their shot blocked on the breakaway, and UTEP quickly answered with a deflating three. It was still a nine-point game at the under-8 with 7:10 left. But after that, the Jayhawks got a second run going and finally made it a close game. A 13-4 run had it tied at 59 at the final media timeout, and the nailbiter was on.

KU finally took its first lead of the game with 2:42 left. UTEP hit two free throws to tie it back up at 62-all at the 1:30 mark. After getting a layup blocked, Garrett would redeem himself on the next possession by driving and putting Kansas back on top, 64-62, with 21 seconds left. KU then forced a turnover, and Dajuan Harris went to the line and hit two clutch free throws to make it a two possession game with 17 ticks remaining. UTEP missed the ensuing shot and Kansas had officially managed to scrap their way to an ugly 67-62 victory.

Agbaji led the Jayhawks in scoring with 19, but he was closely followed by McCormack’s 18, as he made up for a horrendous first half. Garrett was the only other Jayhawk in double figures with 11, but also added five assists and four steals. Kansas would end up shooting 42% overall, and 33%, which sadly appears to be their baseline, from three.

Bottom line is that they won a game that it really looked like they were going to lose for the first 32 minutes. That’s good. What’s not good is that it reinforced how all it takes is for an opponent to hit a few shots here and there to put Kansas in a tough spot. The offense is so bad that the defense has to play off the charts for 40 minutes to give them a shot. Fortunately, the defense is good enough to make that a reality, but it’s abundantly clear that the first time the Jayhawks run into a team that’s hitting 40%+ from the three, they’re probably getting bounced in the tournament, regardless of opponent.

At the time of publishing, the Big 12 standings were not entirely settled, but KU’s next game will take place Thursday, March 11, in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City. They will be the 3 seed at 12-6, just behind West Virginia at 11-5, playing one of Texas, Oklahoma, or Texas Tech.