Kansas lifted the lid on the season, but not on the basket.
The No. 7 Jayhawks couldn’t buy a basket from the outside, but they did plenty of other things well enough to withstand poor shooting and beat Southeast Missouri State 74-55 in the season opener.
Kansas missed 19 of its 21 three-point attempts, including 17 in a row. It impacted the game, preventing the Jayhawks from applying the early knockout, and allowing the Redhawks to chip away at a 15-point halftime deficit.
When Southeast Missouri’s A.J. Jones stepped to the line and buried two free throws with 12:10 remaining, the margin was down to six.
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But Kansas remembered that it was a bigger, more athletic team and went hard to the basket to pull away.
“That’s just basketball,” Kansas guard Nadir Tharpe said. “Nobody was taking bad shots. We’re going to make those shots, and as long as we’re confident enough to shoot them, that’s all that matters.”
Kansas perfected the art of winning despite cold shooting during last year’s run to the NCAA Tournament championship game. The Jayhawks shot less than 30 percent from behind the arc in four of their five NCAA victories. Outstanding defense was the great equalizer.
So it was Friday. Kansas smothered the Redhawks in the first half, holding them to 21 percent shooting and took a 32-17 lead.
But the first eight minutes after the break belonged to Southeast Missouri. KU kept shooting bricks, while the Redhawks were hustling on both ends.
Finally, Kansas stopped the slide with inside power. Withey, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds, knocked down two free throws and Ben McLemore scored inside.
Moments later, McLemore fed Releford for a transition basket and Jamari Traylor delivered the assist of the night to set up a Perry Ellis’ three-point play. The margin was back to 13, and it no longer mattered that the Jayhawks couldn’t buy a jump shot.
“You never look good when you miss shots,” KU coach Bill Self said. “But we defended pretty good.”
The idea, said Southeast Missouri coach Dickie Nutt, was to throw several defensive looks at KU with plenty of zone.
“We dared them to beat us from the outside,” said Nutt, who knew a little about the Jayhawks, or at least how they are coached. He and Self served together on Leonard Hamilton’s staff at Oklahoma State in the late 1980s.
Tharpe made the Jayhawks’ first three-pointer, on the team’s third attempt. Andrew White made a three with 16 seconds remaining. That was it. Additionally, the number of jump shots made by the Jayhawks could be counted on one hand. And some of the players expected to be top guns, guard Elijah Johnson and McLemore, only scored around the basket or from the stripe.
“Our looks were pretty good,” Self said. “If you just shoot it 6 for 21, it looks a lot different.”
Johnson struggled most of the night. He picked up his fourth foul with about four minutes remaining. The game wasn’t in doubt, but it meant KU was lean on Tharpe, a seldom-used guard last season, that much more.
“Once he had his fourth foul I knew I was going to have go back in there for a while,” Tharpe said. “I tried to get my mind right once I went in.”
Tharpe finished with 10 points, and hit a pair of jumpers late in the game. Johnson finished with four points and one assist.
The totals favored the bigs. Withey recorded a double-double two others nearly did, and they were making their college debuts. Ellis had nine of his 15 in the second half and added eight rebounds. McLemore had nine points and 12 rebounds.
Now, if the gang can shoot straighter.