Inside the Scottrade Center, the temperature was rising. The upset watch was turned up to 10. Tensions were rising.
For the second straight season, Kansas was in a first-round dogfight with a low-seeded directional school from the state of Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky kept splashing in three-pointers, the sort of recipe that can lead to all-time upsets in the madness of March.
But amid all the uncertainty, sophomore Jamari Traylor looked plenty comfortable carrying No. 2 seed Kansas to an 80-69 victory over No. 15 Eastern Kentucky on Friday afternoon.
Traylor finished with a career-high 17 points and 14 rebounds as the Jayhawks fought off an Eastern Kentucky team that finished 12 of 31 from three-point range.
The Jayhawks will move on to face No. 10 seed Stanford on Sunday. The Cardinal took down No. 7 seed New Mexico 58-53 in a defensive struggle.
On Friday, the Jayhawks trailed by nine points in the first half and by as many as three midway through the second half. But Traylor simply had too much athleticism and strength for an overwhelmed Colonels frontcourt.
The Jayhawks finally appeared to overwhelm Eastern Kentucky with their sheer size in the final stretches of the second half. As Kansas turned a 50-49 deficit into a 66-61 lead, Traylor had 12 of the Jayhawks’ 17 points, eating up Eastern Kentucky in the paint and on the glass.
This had the look of so many tournament scares over the years. The Jayhawks, it appeared, could get a dunk whenever they wanted one. But Kansas couldn’t convert from three-point range, and Eastern Kentucky’s quick guards gave the Jayhawks fits.
Eastern Kentucky hit Kansas with a flurry of three-pointers in the opening minutes, but freshman Andrew Wiggins led a late charge as the teams headed to the locker room all tied at 32-32 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Wiggins would finish with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
The Jayhawks trailed by as many as nine early, but Wiggins finished with 10 points in the opening 20 minutes, closing the deficit. Eastern Kentucky senior Glenn Cosey led the Colonels with 7 points while hitting five of 11 from behind the three-point line.
Eastern Kentucky stretched its first-half lead to 23-14 on a three-pointer from Cosey with 8:45 left in the half, and KU coach Bill Self burned a timeout.
Some of it was poor defense by the Jayhawks. But most of it was sloppy play on the offensive end. In the opening 12 minutes, the Jayhawks had 14 points and 10 turnovers.
Junior guard Naadir Tharpe finished the half with four turnovers while the Jayhawks turned it over 13 times in 20 minutes. Tharpe played just 10 minutes in the half, freshman Conner Frankamp came off the bench to play 25 minutes while finishing with 10 points.
For Kansas, this was about survival. And Traylor put the Jayhawks on his back in the second half.