LAWRENCE — Twenty-eight was far from great for Kansas basketball, but when it comes to the Jayhawks’ jaw-dropping stretch of consecutive conference-opening success, the outcome was no different.
The fifth-ranked Jayhawks built up a double-digit halftime lead and kept No. 23 Oklahoma at arm’s length the rest of the way, surviving a dicey second-half performance for a 70-63 victory in the teams’ league opener Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse. The outcome continued a string of victories in conference openers that dates back to the 1991-92 season — a stretch that predates the Big 12, which KU has won a national record-breaking 14 consecutive times.
KU (12-1) led by 15 at the half, saw its advantage shrink to four with 30 seconds left, then held the Sooners (11-2) scoreless the rest of the way. Freshman guard Devon Dotson, who finished with a game-high 16 points, hit 3 of 4 free-throw attempts the rest of the way, with missed shot attempts from Aaron Calixte and Kristian Doolittle sandwiched between. Calixte missed a 3-pointer with nine seconds left, and the Jayhawks were able to run out the rest of the clock.
“Even though we didn’t do a lot of good things,” KU coach Bill Self said, “we’ve won a lot of games like tonight over the course of the years where you don’t play great but you make sure the other team doesn’t play quite as well as you do.”
KU took a 40-25 advantage into the half thanks to a strong finish from its leading scorer — Dedric Lawson, who entered the evening second in the Big 12 in scoring at 19.6 points per game, was held scoreless for the first 19 minutes but finished the half with five points, including an and-1 conversion on a layup through contact with 3.9 seconds left.
It was freshman guard Quentin Grimes that shined most early on, though, scoring a game-high 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting before the break. The former five-star recruit out of The Woodlands, Texas, scored seven points in an early 15-0 run that turned a seven-point deficit into a double-digit lead, then later capped a 10-2 run with an emphatic dunk that again pushed his team’s advantage to double-figures, 33-22, with 2:50 left in the period.
The Jayhawks, though, face-planted out of the break, held scoreless for five-plus minutes and without a field goal make until Lawson’s layup at the 13-minute mark.
“Coach talked about it, about coming out with energy at the beginning of games and at halftime. That’s something we’re definitely going to have to do heading into conference play,” Lawson said. “We’re not always going to have a 15-point leading heading into the half. You can get down early doing things like that, so we’ve just got to pick it up.”
A 3-pointer from Christian James and a Jamal Bieniemy jumper cut the Sooners’ deficit to 49-44 with 10:56 left and forced a full timeout from Self, who was trying to get on track a discombobulated squad that was 2-for-11 shooting at that point in the second period.
“I didn’t feel like we were in tune at all,” Self said. “I felt like we were individuals obviously in the second half as opposed to a team and we didn’t play to our strengths nearly as much as what we need to play to in order to have success over a period of time.”
Whatever Self said in the surely fiery moment was clearly heeded by Lawson and Dotson.
KU connected on field goal attempts on each of its four subsequent trips on offense, with Lawson contributing a pair of layups and a jumper and Dotson draining a 3. Lawson’s point-blank make with 8:33 left made the KU lead 58-46, and this time, it was OU coach and Silver Lake native Lon Kruger calling timeout.
The Jayhawks executed their offensive spurt with four guards around the junior forward Lawson and with center Udoka Azubuike, playing in his second game after a return from an ankle sprain, on the bench. Self said he took Azubuike out in large part due to insufficient conditioning at this point in his reintegration.
“One thing that’s very evident is when Doke (Azubuike) and Dedric are both in the game, neither one was scoring in the second half,” Self said. “Dedric ran off six straight whenever Doke wasn’t in the game. ... We still didn’t do a lot of great things. Our advantage was, if we were going to play (Azubuike and Lawson) together, we should’ve been throwing it inside every possession, and we didn’t do that or take advantage of that.”
The Sooners weren’t done.
KU re-inserted Azubuike out of the timeout, and Kruger immediately deployed the “Poke-a-Doke” strategy of intentionally sending the 7-footer to the free-throw line. Azubuike missed the front end of a 1-and-1, and Lawson on the rebound attempt fouled Doolittle, who hit one of two attempts on the other end to cut the KU lead to eight with 3:47 to play.
Azubuike, who last year missed six consecutive free-throw attempts in the final four minutes of a comeback victory by the Sooners in Norman, Okla., returned to the bench out of the ensuing media timeout, and from there, the Jayhawks were able to do just enough down the stretch — Dotson’s and-1 layup conversion, set up by a Grimes steal, made the advantage nine with 2:35 left, and KU combined enough made free throws and defensive stops to finish off a 28th straight victory in a conference opener.
Grimes score 14 points, Lawson posted another double-double with a 13-point, 15-rebound performance, and Lagerald Vick rounded out the Jayhawks’ double-figure scorers with a 12-point evening. Brady Manek paced the Sooners with 16 points, though it came on a 6-for-13 shooting performance on an evening where OU hit just 40.3 percent of its attempts and 22.7 percent of its 3s.
KU continues conference play with a 4 p.m. Saturday tilt at Iowa State.
“It’ll be as hard an atmosphere as we play in,” Self said of Hilton Coliseum. “I mean, there won’t be a better atmosphere that we play in than Ames, and it’s like that every time we go up there. Historically we like going up there and playing. We haven’t always won but it’s always seemed like we’ve played pretty well.
“This’ll be different. Arizona State was a good atmosphere, but this will be even better than Arizona State. Seeing how much poise we have to play in that will be a challenge for us, but I think that we’ll look forward to doing it and I know we’re going to play a much, much improved team to what they had last year.”