Far from satisfied: Top-seeded Kansas cruises past Iowa State and into the Big 12 title game

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Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) celebrates a three next to Iowa State forward Robert Jones (12) during the first half on Friday, March 10, 2023 at T Mobile Center in Kansas City. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas City, Mo. — It was far more than Jalen Wilson’s red-hot shooting start and 12th double-double of the season that kept acting Kansas coach Norm Roberts calm during Friday’s 71-58 win over Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals at T-Mobile Center.

The real work started long before tipoff.

One day after an emotional win over West Virginia that came with head coach Bill Self in the hospital, Roberts sensed something was off in the locker room before Friday’s semifinal game with fifth-seeded Iowa State.

“It was quiet when we were doing our pregame meeting and I said, ‘Hey, I’m a little worried,’” Roberts recalled after Friday’s win. “I said, ‘I’m worried that we’re satisfied with what happened yesterday. We’re satisfied we got a win and we did it for coach (Self) and whatnot.’ And J-Wil said, ‘Oh, no. Nope. Nope. Ain’t nobody in here satisfied.’ And Juan (Harris) said the same thing.”

That put Roberts’ mind at ease, and he spent the rest of the evening watching KU’s leaders back up what they told him before tipoff.

“I said, ‘OK. You tell me that; I believe you,’” Roberts added of the exchanged in the locker room. “‘So, let’s go out there and be ready to play,’ and they were.”

Box score: Kansas 71, Iowa State 58

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Wilson and Harris combined for 36 points and seven steals, while leading the Jayhawks into Saturday’s Big 12 title game for the 15th time in the 27-year history of the conference.

While Harris (11 points, six assists, four steals) picked his spots to attack, Wilson wasted no time forcing the issue.

On Thursday, Wilson collected his Big 12 Player of the Year trophy just before tipoff of the Jayhawks 78-61 win over the Mountaineers. Just in case his 22-point, 11-rebound double-double in a gritty win over WVU didn’t do the trick, Wilson used the first five minutes of Friday’s win over the Cyclones to remind people why he won the award.

Wilson hit his first four shots of the game, drilling back-to-back 3-pointers to start the scoring and adding a third 3-pointer a few minutes later. The closest shot he hit in his 11-point explosion to open the game came from about 17 feet on a curl near the free throw line. By game’s end, Wilson had produced 25 points and 10 rebounds on 8-of-14 shooting.

“There’s no surprise with J-Wil, how he started,” said KU freshman Gradey Dick. “That’s’ just player-of-the-year status right there.”

Said Wilson of his mindset to open the game: “I just tried to come out aggressive, having fun with it, as well. Everything was just great. I’m happy with how I started off. I’ve been saying we’ve got to get out to good starts, so we’ve just got to continue to do that.”

That early stretch, along with a couple of baskets by KJ Adams and Harris, pushed the Jayhawks out to early leads of 5-0, 8-2 and 17-9 before Iowa State (19-13) settled into the game.

One of the biggest highlights of the first half came during that sequence. After a lob pass from behind the 3-point line by ISU’s Jarren Holmes hit Osun Osunniyi in the hands and led to a Kansas fastbreak the other way, Harris hit Adams above the rim for a lob in transition that gave KU a 17-9 lead and bragging rights in the alley-oop game.

Adams said moments like that are huge for the momentum of a game and he wouldn’t want anyone else but Harris on his side when it comes time to make those types of plays.

That wasn’t the last one Harris made. A couple of minutes after Kansas (27-6) fell behind, 39-38 in the second half, — the first and only time they trailed all night — Harris fired a lob to the rim to no one in particular. He knew the whole time that freshman big man Ernest Udeh Jr. was coming from the short corner and Udeh knew he was going to get the ball.

Once he did, he finished with authority to put KU up 46-41. Udeh followed that highlight up with a steal and near finish that led to two free throws in transition.

“When he plays with energy like that, it really helps our team,” Roberts said of Udeh.

Suddenly, after trailing for 18 seconds, a 10-2 run had put KU back ahead by seven.

“They made their run, now we’ve got to make our run back and now we’ve got to stay solid and do the right things,” Roberts said of his message to the team during the timeout after ISU took the lead. “Our guys were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this coach.’”

That they did.

Kansas cruised home from there, leading by as many as 15 at one point, before settling in on a double-digit victory, five weeks after getting punked by Iowa State, 68-53 in Ames.

There was no real update on Self on Friday, other than what the KU players and coaches said in the locker room after the game.

Roberts, who moved to 6-0 as the leader of the Jayhawks this season (he also coached four games for Self during a suspension to open the season), again talked to Self after Friday’s victory. Like on Thursday, Roberts said Self was proud of the way his guys fought and competed against the Cyclones.

Earlier in the day, Self spoke to the entire team on speaker phone, bringing a sense of normalcy back to the locker room.

“It was kind of funny, (he was) the same old coach, going through what we did wrong and what we did right,” said Dick, who scored 15 points with five rebounds and three steals. “And then he went through all the Iowa State players just like a normal scout. He’s doing great and hopefully just keeps recovering.”

Another Jayhawk who is in the middle of recovering is senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. McCullar, who did not start on Thursday but was able to play 26 minutes while battling back spasms, was back in the starting lineup on Friday.

But a loose-ball tie-up early in the second half twisted his back again and McCullar spent the rest of the game as a spectator on the bench. After sitting through a couple of timeouts and getting ice treatments, he was able to get up during timeouts later in the game and he jogged off with the team to the locker room after the win.

“He’s doing good,” Roberts said. “He’s got some back spasms so he’s day to day. We’ve got to think about Kevin for the long haul, so we’ll just see.”

Asked if he would consider playing him in Saturday’s title game, Roberts said, “If he’s OK, yeah. But we’ve just got to make sure that we look (out) for the long term.”

Wilson agreed.

“Tomorrow’s important, but I’d say March Madness is even more important,” he said.

Top-seeded Kansas is slated to face No. 2 seed Texas, a 66-60 winner over TCU in Friday’s second semifinal, at 5 p.m. Saturday.

KU and Texas split the regular season series, with each team winning on its home floor. Kansas won the conference by one game over Texas, which defeated KU 75-59 in the final game of the regular season on March 4 in Austin, Texas.


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Written By Matt Tait

A native of Colorado, Matt moved to Lawrence in 1988 and has been in town ever since. He graduated from Lawrence High in 1996 and the University of Kansas in 2000 with a degree in Journalism. After covering KU sports for the University Daily Kansan and Rivals.com, Matt joined the World Company (and later Ogden Publications) in 2001 and has held several positions with the paper and KUsports.com in the past 20+ years. He became the Journal-World Sports Editor in 2018. Throughout his career, Matt has won several local and national awards from both the Associated Press Sports Editors and the Kansas Press Association. In 2021, he was named the Kansas Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Matt lives in Lawrence with his wife, Allison, and two daughters, Kate and Molly. When he’s not covering KU sports, he likes to spend his time playing basketball and golf, listening to and writing music and traveling the world with friends and family.

2023-03-11 03:51:12