COLUMBIA | Their leading scorer in conference play started the game so cold he could have been a thermometer outside Mizzou Arena.
They were called for 12 fouls in the first half, created only five Missouri turnovers and led by just two.
If there was ever a team ripe for an upset on the road against its bitter rival, it was the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday night at Mizzou Arena. But, unlike No. 1 North Carolina and No. 4 UCLA earlier in the day, No. 3 KU simply found a way. And, also unlike the Tar Heels and Bruins, they had to do it on the road.
The Jayhawks stayed unbeaten with a grueling 76-70 victory over the Tigers that was impressive only because it meant their record will show “18-0” when the poll voters sit down at their laptops today and decide which undefeated team – KU or Memphis – will be the new No. 1 on Monday.
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Did the Jayhawks do enough to jump No. 2 Memphis? Really, who cares? The Jayhawks improved their Big 12 record to 3-0 and now have two rock-chalk-‘em-up home games against Iowa State and Nebraska before their next challenge at Kansas State on Jan. 30.
Actually, maybe KU does care about being No. 1. KU senior leader Russell Robinson talked openly on Thursday about how he wasn’t all that impressed with North Carolina on Wednesday as it squeaked by Georgia Tech. Robinson wanted the Tar Heels to lose so that the Jayhawks could take their rightful place at the top of the polls.
“They’re getting all the national attention right now,” Robinson said. “I kind of want to see what they’re doing that we’re not. Obviously, not much.”
So, maybe the Jayhawks cared too much on Saturday night, judging by the way they played in the first half against the Tigers with the Tar Heels finally out of the way.
Kansas fell behind 7-1 early and spent the rest of the half trying to make up that deficit. It wasn’t easy, especially the way junior guard Brandon Rush started the game. Rush, who had led KU in two Big 12 games with 17.5 points per game, shot the ball as if his older brother and former Missouri star, Kareem Rush, was yelling obscenities into his ear every time the ball left his hands.
He missed his first six shots, including four open 3-pointers, and was noticeably frustrated by his inaccuracy. Rush’s night and the way he recovered turned out to be a fitting metaphor for Kansas’ scrappy win. He finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds, a near double-double, and helped ice the game with four free throws in the game’s final two minutes.
The Jayhawks overcame their foul trouble thanks to some key minutes from role players like freshman big man Cole Aldrich, senior wing Rodrick Stewart and senior point guard Jeremy Case. When KU’s stars were in the game, they did what they’ve done all season: They spread around the scoring like a scorching hot potato.
Mario Chalmers finished with 18 points, Darnell Jackson with 13 and Darrell Arthur with 10. Sherron Collins and Robinson each chipped in 9 and 8, respectively.
For Missouri, 11-7, 1-2, it was a disappointing night, an opportunity lost. Point guard Stefhon Hannah scored 23 points in an inspired effort to give Missouri coach Mike Anderson his first win over Kansas. It’ll have to wait until the two teams meet again on Feb. 4 in Lawrence on ESPN’s “Big Monday.”
It’ll have to wait because KU outrebounded Missouri 52-43 and had no players foul out despite the tight officiating – Missouri’s Leo Lyons and Jason Horton both fouled out.
Will KU’s escape from Columbia be enough to vault it over Memphis? Kansas fans will spend the next day debating. No matter what, the bulls-eye on the front of KU’s jersey just got a little bigger.