LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball avoided unpleasant history Monday night, and in the process retained its spot atop the Big 12 conference.
As Iowa State illustrated, though, the Jayhawks’ road to a 15th straight league title is paved with hazards.
The ninth-ranked Jayhawks overcame an eight-point deficit, recovered after blowing an eight-point, second-half lead of their own, and earned an 80-76 victory over the No. 24 Cyclones at Allen Fieldhouse. KU junior forward Dedric Lawson finished with game-highs of 29 points and 15 rebounds and hit the game’s biggest shot, a 3-pointer with 23 seconds left that made the Jayhawk advantage five.
With the victory, KU avoided what would’ve been its first-ever start to conference play of 4-3 or worse under head coach Bill Self, a defeat that would’ve been the worst for the program since a 3-4 start in Big 8 play in the disappointing 1988-89 campaign.
Here’s how it happened.
The Jayhawks (16-3, 5-2 Big 12) trailed by five at the end of a first half that saw the Cyclones’ Talen Horton-Tucker, a 27.2-percent 3-pointer shooter entering the contest, hit 3 of 5 attempts from beyond the arc and post a team-high 13 points in the period. ISU (14-5, 4-3) led by as many as seven at multiple points in the opening period and, despite strong efforts from Lawson (15 points) and freshman guard Ochai Agbaji (eight), had no trouble carving up the KU defense — the Cyclones carried a 53.1-percent shooting percentage into the intermission, with the team’s starters accounting for all 42 first-half points.
ISU’s lead stood at six, 53-47, with 12:44 to play on yet another Horton-Tucker 3-pointer, this time a step-back make that made his team 9 for 21 from deep. That’s when the lid finally came off for a Jayhawk offense that so often this year has found itself missing in action at key moments in the team’s uneven season.
The Jayhawks reeled off a 14-0 run over the game’s next four minutes, with several players having a hand in the action. Lagerald Vick and Marcus Garrett kick-started the fun with layups, and Vick drained a pair of free-throw attempts before giving KU the lead with a dunk on a Devon Dotson lob pass in transition, a rare above-the-rim play for Self’s squad.
It wasn’t over. Lawson hit a picturesque hook shot off the glass, Garrett converted another driving layup and reserve guard K.J. Lawson capped the rally with a short jumper to make the Jayhawk advantage eight, 61-53, with 8:33 left.
Like every foe KU has faced this conference season in the uber-competitive Big 12, though, the Cyclones weren’t going to roll over.
Marial Shayok hit a pair of free-throw attempts to end the Jayhawks’ run, Tyrese Haliburton connected on an athletic layup to end his team’s nearly seven-minute field goal drought, and Shayok and Lindell Wigginton hit 3-pointers on back-to-back ISU possessions to cut the KU lead to four, 69-65, with 3:48 left. KU then committed turnovers on back-to-back possessions, with a Michael Jacobson free-throw make and 3-pointer coming right after each to lock the score at 69-all with 2:29 to play.
Vick responded with a trey out of a KU timeout, though, and after a Shayok layup, the Jayhawks got a layup of their own from Garrett, though the sophomore missed the ensuing free-throw attempt to keep the KU advantage at three, 74-71, with 1:12 to play. After another 1-for-2 effort from Jacobson at the free-throw line, Dedric Lawson scored his final three and most pivotal of the 29-point performance, a 3-pointer from the top of the key that made the Jayhawk advantage 77-72 with 21 seconds left.
Lawson jogged back on defense with both arms in the air, 3-point gestures made and raised on both hands. Dotson hit 3 of 4 attempts from the stripe, and with the Cyclones down four in the final seconds, a Lawson-guarded Shayok airmailed a 3-pointer over the backboard to finish off the rock fight of a contest.
Garrett finished with 16 points and three steals, while Vick (14 points) and Dotson (11) rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks. Shayok’s 26 points paced the Cyclones, who got just three points from their bench in the defeat.
KU will take a break from conference play when it travels to No. 8 Kentucky for a Big 12/SEC Challenge tilt at 5 p.m. Saturday inside Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. The Jayhawks will enter that contest as one of the Big 12′s two leading teams alongside the winner of the 6 p.m. Tuesday contest between No. 14 Texas Tech and Kansas State in Manhattan.