It was long after Bill Self had benched his starters for a lengthy stretch in the second half, and long after Kansas had held off Wake Forest 87-78 in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Thursday.
The Kansas bench had carried the day for a crucial span, cobbling together a double-digit lead as tempers flared inside Imperial Arena on a holiday afternoon.
So it was easy to wonder if Self, who was making his way through a hallway outside a ballroom-turned-basketball arena, had intended to send a message to his starters.
That, Self said, wasn’t necessarily the case.
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“I wasn’t trying to prove a point as much as I was trying to win the game,” Self said.
For the No. 2 Jayhawks (5-0), this Thanksgiving day victory was perhaps a lesson in winning ugly. They never dominated Wake Forest (5-1) but it never felt like they were in danger of losing either.
In other words, they were good enough to move on and face Villanova at 8:30 p.m. Friday in the semifinals. Villanova (5-0) handled Southern California 94-79 in the opening game of the tournament.
But for Self, this wasn’t the type of ugly victory he’d prefer.
“It’s frustrating to me,” Self said. “We’ve always been a team that won ugly by not allowing the other team to score. And so it wasn’t a pretty game today, but it wasn’t because we did anything to keep the other team from scoring. We just kind of outscored them down the stretch.”
Freshman Andrew Wiggins finished with 17 points and four rebounds, but he played through a flu bug. And starting guards Naadir Tharpe and Wayne Selden combined to shoot 4 of 12. So when Wake Forest opened the second half on a 16-6 run, shaving Kansas’ lead to 46-42, Self went to his bench.
For nearly eight minutes, the starters stayed next to Self. Kansas relied on freshman center Joel Embiid (10 points) and sophomore forward Jamari Traylor (eight points). And when the score was tight, Self essentially put the game on the shoulders of freshman point guard Frank Mason, who was left open against Wake Forest’s two-three zone defense.
“We kind of put it on him to just go make plays or whatnot,” Self said. “The way they played their zone, they didn’t guard Frank at the top. So he needed to step up and make a shot, and he did.”
Mason’s three-pointer from the top of the key with 13:27 left pushed the Jayhawks’ lead to 49-42. He finished with 13 points and three assists, including a lob pass to Embiid in that key stretch. In all, Kansas’ bench accounted for 41 of the Jayhawks’ 87 points.
“We knew the starters (weren’t) doing so well,” Mason said, “So we just tried to come off the bench and fight a little adversity and make plays.”
Minutes after Kansas’ subs entered, emotions began to boil over. In a span of 40 seconds, official Jeb Hartness handed out three technical fouls, including two that earned an automatic ejection for Wake Forest forward Devin Thomas.
All three technicals, one of them given to Wake Forest’s Tyler Cavanaugh, came after the players had jawed at Hartness. Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said he wasn’t given an explanation for the ejection, and Self wished Thomas would have been on the floor for the final seven minutes.
“I hated what happened with Thomas, because we would love to play against him,” Self said. “And I know that hurt their team when he went out.”
The Demon Deacons still managed to trim the lead to 77-72 with 1:56 left, as sophomore guard Codi Miller-McIntyre lit up Kansas for 26 points. Wake Forest managed to shoot 46.4 percent from the floor and score 52 points in the second half.
In the final minutes, Self stuck with Mason and four of his starters. And from that point, the Jayhawks stayed composed as Wake made its final run.
“We may not have lost our head or didn’t turn it over,” Self said. “But we didn’t stop them ever, so that wasn’t very good.”
In one way, the Jayhawks essentially handled Wake Forest with its second five. In another, the starters were bad enough that the Demon Deacons were one run away from ruining Kansas’ weekend in the Bahamas.
“I hope it sends a message,” Self said. “But on the flip side, I asked the guys after the game: ‘What can we hang our hat on today?’ And the common answer was, ‘Well, coach we got depth.’”
“I hope we don’t have to play like this all the time, but I think it’s fine if we have to.”