AMES, Iowa — A man of few words, Lagerald Vick has been rendered silent of late, unable to let his play speak for itself.
That changed Tuesday night when the reticent junior guard made strong statements — both on and off the court.
Vick scored 16 points in No. 13-ranked Kansas’ 83-77 victory at Iowa State, erupting offensively to author the game’s most pivotal stretch at the outset of a second half in which he scored 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting.
Mired in the worst slump of his collegiate career and relegated to a bench role in the Jayhawks’ last two contests, Vick returned to the starting lineup against the Cyclones and finally broke loose. He made 3 of 4 3-point attempts in the first six minutes of the second half to turn a three-point lead into a 10-point advantage for KU (20-6, 9-4 Big 12), which held on despite a late push from ISU (13-12, 4-9).
Conducting a postgame interview in the bowels of Hilton Coliseum, Vick was asked if he feels he’s back.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Vick responded. “I don’t feel like I ever left.”
The 16-point showing was Vick’s best scoring output since the team’s conference opener, a 92-86 victory on Dec. 29 at Texas that saw the Memphis, Tenn., native score 21 points. With 6-foot-9 standout freshman Cameron Lard guarding him, Vick knew he’d have his opportunities to score off offensive mismatches Tuesday — and that he did, finishing 6-for-10 shooting with four 3s.
“That was probably as big as anything that we did all night,” KU coach Bill Self said of Vick’s second-half stretch.
With the way ISU defends, Self felt it necessary to get KU’s four best shooters on the court as early as possible, leading to the return of Vick and sophomore guard Malik Newman (17 points on 6-for-10 shooting) to the starting lineup.
Self saw better energy from the duo, an observation senior guard Devonte’ Graham agreed with — but under one condition.
“It’s a continuous grind,” Graham said. “You’ve got to do it in practice each and every day and definitely in the game, but today they definitely responded.”
After a pair of early missed 3s from Vick, Graham approached his junior counterpart and told him to stay aggressive, a constant message from teammates and coaches of late. Vick, Graham noticed, wasn’t jumping enough on his jump shot, an obviously problematic formula. Vick heeded the advice and made four of his final five attempts from beyond the arc.
“I think his attitude has always been good, but the last week or so it’s just been outstanding,” Newman said of Vick. “Credit to him for that, for not letting his little funk interfere with his attitude or things like that. Just glad he came out with a sense of urgency and was aggressive for us tonight.
“I think this was kind of the game that he needed. I think he shot the ball with confidence. I think he played aggressive. That’s what we wanted him to do.”
Udoka Azubuike had a game-high-tying 19 points on 9-for-10 shooting for the Jayhawks, while Graham (13 points) and Svi Mykhailiuk (10 points) struggled with accuracy (6-for-26 combined shooting) but also reached double figures.
Lard had 19 points and 11 rebounds for the Cyclones, who almost overcame a 12-point deficit in the game’s final two and a half minutes thanks to poor free-throw shooting and defensive miscues by KU. Graham gave KU its final margin with a pair of free-throw makes in the final minute, but the Jayhawks missed four shots from the stripe in the final 38 seconds, including a pair of frontends on one-and-ones.
Self said he expected a late push from the Cyclones, but ...
“I didn’t expect us to probably play like we’ve never been coached a day this year, for sure,” Self said. ”... As bad as we were defensively in not sorting and doing some boneheaded things, it wasn’t that we turned it over, it’s just that we just didn’t make our free throws. We probably played a little better than what I thought down the stretch, but it sure didn’t feel very good.”
KU, still down one game in the conference standings to Texas Tech, returns to action with a 5 p.m. Saturday home contest against No. 20 West Virginia. The Jayhawks took the season’s first matchup 71-66 on Jan. 15 in Morgantown, W.Va., which became part of a 1-5 stretch for the Mountaineers.
What the Jayhawks get from Vick in that contest is anybody’s guess. Just don’t look to Graham to read whether his teammate was relishing Tuesday night’s performance.
“I feel like he’s kind of the same, just kind of a mellow guy, you know,” Graham said of Vick’s postgame demeanor in the locker room. “He made shots and had energy and rebounded and played well today, though.”