LAWRENCE — The 7-footer is gone, but Wednesday night proved Kansas basketball may not need to adjust its ceiling much, if at all.
Debuting freshman guard Ochai Agbaji illustrated that by flying sky-high on his very first play.
Agbaji, who burned his redshirt in the seventh-ranked Jayhawks’ contest against No. 25 TCU at Allen Fieldhouse, flushed a roof-raising dunk on a lob pass for his first collegiate points, then infused his squad with energy from there to the finish line as KU survived a late scare en route to a 77-68 victory in its first contest without sidelined junior center Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike, who had successful surgery Wednesday morning in New York to repair a torn ligament in his right hand, is out for the remainder of the season.
Having never previously been on the receiving end of that lob play in the team’s practices, Agbaji saw it drawn up for him in the timeout ahead of his first entry and knew it was go-time.
“It definitely got us going after that,” Agbaji said. “It got me going too.”
The Kansas City, Mo., native and Bill Self-described most athletic player on the team, Agbaji soared both literally and metaphorically in his collegiate debut, finishing with seven points on 3-for-5 shooting with four rebounds and two steals.
“It was unbelievable how that kid responded,” Self said of Agbaji, “and kept balls alive and just gave us some energy.”
Junior forward Dedric Lawson again willed the Jayhawks though a dicey home stretch, finishing with game-highs of 31 points and 14 rebounds. But it was Agbaji who Lawson went out of his way to laud in the postgame news conference, interrupting a question intended for the first-year player with his own observation.
“He played great,” Lawson said.
“Fantastic,” added sophomore guard Marcus Garrett.
“I don’t know, I thought I did really good, I guess,” he said sheepishly.
The Jayhawks (13-2, 2-1 Big 12) finished the opening half strong to carry a nine-point lead into the locker room.
A Lagerald Vick 3-pointer kick-started an 11-3 run to end the period. It was a rally highlighted, again, by Agbaji — the 6-5, 210-pounder notched his first career steal and assist on the same sequence, a jumping pass interception followed by a slick dish in transition to Garrett, who laid it in easily. By the time the opening half was over, Agbaji had a stat-stuffing line of 4 points, 2 rebounds, 1 block, 1 assist and 1 steal in 13 minutes.When the Jayhawk regulars offered a flat start to the second period, Self didn’t hesitate to go to Agbaji, who again provided an instant jolt. The former four-star recruit out of Oak Park High School drained his first 3-point attempt, a contested shot from the wing, to build an eight-point KU lead, 49-41, with 15:38 to play.
Allen Fieldhouse roared, and Agbaji held a 3-point hand gesture at his knees as jogged back on defense.
TCU reeled off a 12-5 run from that point to close the gap to two, 55-53, with an RJ Nembhard trey capping the stretch at the 10:33 mark. Nembhard scored 12 second-half points and finished the game with a team-high 14. That’s when the Jayhawks turned to their preseason All-American and, without Azubuike, the team’s only starting frontcourt player, Lawson. KU’s leading scorer posted nine straight points to establish an 11-point advantage — three straight layups followed by an off-balance 3-pointer, the latter play ending with Lawson tumbling into the arms of a giddy Agbaji on the Jayhawk sideline.
The Horned Frogs (12-2, 1-1) weren’t done, though.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Alex Robinson and Desmond Bane cut the Jayhawk advantage to three, 68-65, with 3:37 left and forced a timeout from Self. Lawson converted a layup through contact out of the stoppage and Devon Dotson hit a free-throw attempt to make the advantage six, but another Robinson trey again made it a one-possession game with 1:41 to play.
“We made it easy for them late by (making) a couple of boneheaded plays, but the reality of it is, you’ve got to make those shots,” Self said. “They didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but during that stretch when they were coming back, I bet they made four of five of their nine 3s right there in that four- or five-minute span.”
Garrett’s clutch put-back layup on a missed Vick trey with 1:10 left gave the Jayhawks breathing room, the Horned Frogs committed a turnover and a travel on their next two offensive possessions, and Dotson drained four straight free-throw attempts down the stretch to ice the outcome.“We’re at home, and you should play better at home, but it’s been a crappy last few days, obviously,” said Self, whose squad fell 77-60 last Saturday at Iowa State. “I thought our guys did respond well to that (defeat) and I thought we played a lot better. Even though we didn’t play great, we didn’t allow TCU to play well, and our defense was pretty good, especially the first half.”
From the tense comeback to the final buzzer, Agbaji was there — he played the game’s final 3:33 and finished with a 25-minute appearance, the fifth-highest total on the team. Agbaji said it meant “a lot” to be in the game at the end, though Self said it also had a lot to do with who he didn’t have faith in at that particular moment.
Still, the KU coach offered nothing but positive thoughts on his newest weapon.
“I think he’s a pretty cool kid,” Self said of Agbaji. “I didn’t expect him to play 25 minutes, but yeah. Surprised (by his performance), no. But I probably wouldn’t have bet it to be like it ended up. I thought we’d get him in and he’d have some good minutes but he’s have some lapses, but he really didn’t.”
Vick (12 points) rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks, who return to action at 3 p.m. Saturday against Baylor in Waco, Texas. KU is still seeking its first victory in a true road contest.
“That should be obviously a new environment, something new to me, obviously, from playing home to playing there,” Agbaji said. “I’m excited.”