LEXINGTON, Ky. — Far from home for Saturday night’s high-profile showdown at No. 8 Kentucky, any Kansas basketball player within earshot of the court approximately 30 minutes before tipoff may have overheard an interesting remark.
“Phog Allen,” observed in-game host and former Wildcat guard Ravi Moss, “isn’t Rupp Arena.”
The statement, made over the arena’s sound system to those of the eventual crowd of 24,387 that had already filed in, elicited a token roar. If we’re being honest, though, any number of scenes from the SEC/Big 12 Challenge contest — fireworks in the catwalk and steam shooting off the backboards during pregame lineup introductions; stuffed polar bears parachuting down to fans throughout timeouts; heck, the mere need for a hype man to plead for fan enthusiasm — made it abundantly clear that, yes, this was not Allen Fieldhouse.
So, too, did the final score, yet another setback away from “The Phog” for a ninth-ranked Jayhawk squad now 1-4 in true road contests.
Kentucky 71, Kansas 63.
Dedric Lawson scored 18 points and hauled in 12 rebounds to notch his 14th double-double on the season, but the Wildcats rode a trio of double-doubles — from sophomore forward P.J. Washington (20 points, 13 rebounds), senior forward Reid Travis (18 points, 12 rebounds) and freshman guard Keldon Johnson (15 points, 10 rebounds) — to the victory. The Jayhawks (16-4) were out-rebounded 49-36 and bested in points in the paint, 49-36.
KU’s lone road triumph remains a five-point victory on Jan. 12 at Baylor, and even that contest saw the team nearly blow a 23-point second-half lead.
Reminded of his team’s 1-4 record in true road tilts, Lawson was asked to identify what’s led to those struggles, or whether a five-game sample size is still too small to definitively declare this a problem for these Jayhawks.
The junior forward took a moment to contemplate his answer.
“Uh, man, we just, we just let ’em get away,” Lawson said. “It’s nothing that we can’t fix going forward, down the road. It’s not too late to make adjustments and come out victorious in league play when we play on the road.”
If playing in hostile environments has indeed been a problem for KU, it didn’t show Saturday — at least not early on.
The Jayhawks held a three-point halftime lead thanks to a strong defensive showing from the outset, limiting the Wildcats (16-3) to a 3-for-19 shooting start and an 0-of-8 performance from 3-point range before the break. KU held a 10-point lead early on before allowing Travis — who scored 29 points against the Jayhawks two seasons ago while at Stanford — to make hay in the paint and help his group overcome the ice-cold start.
KU’s advantage didn’t last long into the second half — just one minute and 12 seconds to be exact, with Johnson giving the Wildcats a two-point lead on the team’s first made 3-pointer. It was a Johnson trey again that gave Kentucky what was then its biggest lead, 50-44, with a corner make at the 11:30 mark, forcing a Bill Self timeout.
Life didn’t get much easier from there for KU.
Still facing a six-point deficit, Quentin Grimes badly missed a pair of free-throw attempts, the second clanking off the front iron and securing free Chick-fil-A for the Rupp Arena faithful. On a subsequent possession, sparingly used 6-foot-10 freshman David McCormack attempted and missed an ill-advised mid-range jumper.
Grimes hit a pair of late-game 3s to keep the Jayhawks at least momentarily within striking distance, but the rock-solid defense from the opening half wasn’t sustainable — Washington soared for an uncontested, back-breaking dunk off a well-executed pick-and-roll play, Johnson hit another 3 that further contorted the crumbling Jayhawks and the Wildcats made free throws down the stretch to assure the only drama left for those in the stands would be what day they choose to procure their free chicken sandwich.
The contest was over, with college basketball’s all-time winningest program topping No. 2 in that category. Also over? Self’s incredible streak of 13 consecutive victories against top-10 foes.
After the game, the Hall of Famer delivered a simple message to the locker room about the nonconference setback — “It’s not the end of the world,” Lawson recalled his coach saying. Later, Self explained that line of thinking.
“It’s not. And Cal (John Calipari) would probably tell his team this doesn’t mean anything,” Self said. ”... We can’t fret about this. We came here to win, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like the end of the Earth. We can still accomplish what our team goals are, and certainly losing today doesn’t help with that, but it doesn’t destroy it by any stretch.”
Regarding the in-game environment Lawson described as “wonderful” and Grimes labeled “great,” both players indicated the team should nevertheless assign blame for the performance elsewhere.
“I didn’t think it was a problem until they started hitting 3s down the stretch. Then they started getting loud,” said Grimes, who finished with 13 points. “But I feel like we kind of maintained a good defensive composure and kept the crowd out of the game until kind of like the last five minutes out of the game.”
As for Self’s take on the atmosphere? Well ...
“Yeah, it was good. I mean, it was good,” Self said. “It’s no Allen Fieldhouse, but it’s good.”
Many in the postgame interview room, packed with Kentucky media, blue-clad Wildcat fans and other onlookers, laughed at the shade thrown by the coach.
“The reality of it is, it’s a terrific atmosphere,” Self said. “I said before the game, ‘This is why you go to Kentucky. This is why you go to Kansas.’ Of course, (Kentucky) plays in a ton of huge games, as well. It’s terrific. But I didn’t think that had anything to do with our play tonight.”