OMAHA, Neb. | Yes, the Kansas Jayhawks have bigger goals than the Sweet 16. And no, they didn’t get to cut down any nets on Saturday night.
Still, they had to feel relieved to walk off the Qwest Center floor with a hard-fought 75-56 victory over No. 8 seed UNLV.
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is always about survival, nothing more. Style points don’t really matter, and for the first 30 minutes, the Jayhawks were certainly lacking in style.
They had spent all game trying to assert their inside dominance over the smaller Runnin’ Rebels, who don’t start a player taller than 6 feet, 7 inches tall. But Kansas’ big men found themselves in foul trouble, and many empty possessions came from KU coach Bill Self’s high-low offense. Surprisingly, UNLV had more offensive rebounds than Kansas by a 9-7 margin and took 15 more free throws than the Jayhawks.
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So what would give when KU led just 46-41 and it looked as if the Runnin’ Rebels simply weren’t going to run away at the 11:58 mark? After all the talk about how Saturday would be about KU’s post players, the Jayhawks’ guards went off.
At the 10:55 mark, Self put in a lineup with KU’s top four guards and Sasha Kaun. The Jayhawks went on a 10-2 run and suddenly had some separation at 60-44.
And it wasn’t all Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers this time. Russell Robinson had 10 second-half points and finished with 13, and Sherron Collins had 10 points after a scoreless first half.
Rush and Chalmers finished with 12 and 17, respectively.
Thanks to the burst of energy from that guard-heavy lineup, the Jayhawks overcame a terrific performance from UNLV guard Wink Adams, who willed himself to 25 points by going 15 of 17 from the free-throw line.
KU can now pack its bags for the Sweet 16 in Detroit. The Jayhawks, 33-3, will play the winner of today’s game between No. 12 seed Villanova and No. 13 seed Siena, both of which advanced with upsets on Friday.
The Runnin’ Rebels were able to hang with KU because they withstood the Jayhawks’ initial push. You know, the part of the first half when the Jayhawks try to overwhelm the opponent with high-flying dunks and pressure defense. KU went on a 13-3 run to lead 13-6, and Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers and Sasha Kaun all dunked emphatically.
But UNLV answered back, unlike KU’s first-round opponent, Portland State. The Runnin’ Rebels took the lead 18-17 at the 7:48 mark and played back and forth with the Jayhawks the rest of the way.
A boisterous group of UNLV supporters and a pep band that constantly plays the tune of “Viva Las Vegas” didn’t make Qwest Center feel like much of a homecourt advantage for Kansas.
KU, which has scorched the nets from 3-point range the last three games, made just one of six in the first half and finished four of 12. For the game, the Jayhawks shot 58 percent from the field.