Ochai Agbaji’s mother, Erica, a four-year basketball letterwinner at Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1991 to ’94, fired off a text to her son Wednesday afternoon — several hours before he was to make his regular-season debut for No. 7-ranked Kansas at jam-packed Allen Fieldhouse.
“He was very nervous,” Erica said from the lower-level, west side fieldhouse bleachers, after watching the 6-foot-5, 210-pound freshman guard from Oak Park High School score seven points and grab four rebounds with a block, assist and two steals while playing 25 minutes in KU’s 77-68 victory over No. 25-ranked TCU.
“I remember texting him saying, ‘Just play your game. You know how to play. You’ve worked hard. Here you go,’’’ Erica added.
Agbaji — he had his redshirt lifted lifted this week in response to his roommate Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending hand injury — responded with a simple, ‘Love you,’ message to mom before heading to shootaround, pre-game meal and ultimately pre-game warmups.
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Though Ochai said he was pleased to have a batch of relatives at the game — his sister Orie, a volleyball player at Texas, was able to attend while on semester break, along with Ochai’s aunt, his aunt’s boyfriend and a high school coach. Ochai’s grandmother was sick and unable to attend, while his dad, Olofu, also had to watch on TV. Olofu actually was in his native Nigeria for the 80th-birthday celebration of his dad.
“I would say we probably couldn’t have asked for anything more. This is awesome,” Erica Agbaji said in an interview with The Star after the contest. “It was awesome to see him out there playing. He’s been working so hard. To actually get to see him out there playing a college game was great.”
Agbaji entered to a loud ovation with 15:51 left in the first half and KU up, 8-7. Alex Robinson (12 points, four assists) hit two free throws, then on the ensuing possession Devon Dotson (five points, three assists) lobbed to Agbaji who flushed a dunk to the crowd’s delight at 15:41.
Agbaji had an even more forceful dunk, giving KU a 15-12 lead at 10:51. Charlie Moore, who stole the basketball at midcourt, lobbed to Agbaji who finished emphatically.
That first dunk was a set play.
“Being on scout team (until this week) I knew the play. I don’t think we ever practiced it. I knew what to do. Coach drew it up during a time out. I said (to myself), ‘Let me get this dunk. It’ll get me going.’’’
KU coach Bill Self, who spoke to Agbaji and Agbaji’s parents on Sunday night about possibly lifting his redshirt — everybody was on board — wanted Agbaji to get off to a good start, thus called the play for him to be recipient of a lob.
“I told myself the best way to get rid of his nerves was to get him an easy basket,” Self said. “I thought it’d be something to energize the crowd. We’d been so boring playing above the rim (of late). At least we had some activity. That was good to see.”
Agbaji played seven minutes, eight seconds before getting his first breather. The Jayhawks led, 17-15 when he headed to the bench. He returned to record a steal and assist during an 11-3 run that turned a 29-28 deficit at 3:11 into a 40-31 lead at the break.
Agbaji — Self said he was probably KU’s second-best player on a night Dedric Lawson exploded for 31 points and 14 rebounds — hit a huge three with 15:41 left as the Jayhawks, who had an 11-point lead (42-31) dip to five (46-41), upped the lead back to eight (49-41) at 15:11). He also dove for the ball to keep a possession alive with KU holding a narrow 53-50 lead at 11:44.
“I thought he was great. I think he’s a cool kid,” said Self, who said he thought he’d award Agbaji double-digit minutes, “but I didn’t expect 25. I thought we’d get him in, have some good moments but lapses, too. He didn’t really have any. To perform in a game like that I thought was pretty special.”
Agbaji, who confessed he had tired legs after his first college game, said the best part of the night was “my teammates said they were proud of me. All the coaching staff is proud of me.”
He backed his mom’s assertion that he was nervous, however, “once I got out there and got comfortable, things just started to flow.”
He spoke to sophomore Silvio De Sousa on the bench during the game. “Silvio was like, ‘It’s really different being out there (compared to practice).’ I was breathing heavy. He said, ‘It’s different.’ I said, ‘It really is. You have to think a lot. There’s a lot going on,’’’ Agbaji related.
Agbaji — he said he felt like he played “the whole game” — said he was a bit surprised when Self asked him Sunday about possibly lifting his redshirt.
The original plan was to practice but not play in games this season and start the 2019-20 season as a freshman.
“There was a little bit (hesitation),” Agbaji said, “just on how much I would play and all that. He trusted me, so I went along with it.”
Erica Agbaji said Self’s idea of perhaps pulling the redshirt “kind of caught us off guard. But when coach called and said, ‘We’re thinking about doing this,’ we were like, ‘If you think it’s OK and you think he’s improved, go ahead.’’’
It was 55-53 KU when Lawson scored nine straight points to make it 64-53 at 8:35. KU led by nine points (68-59) at 4:51, however, TCU cut it to 68-65 at 3:34. Lawson scored a bucket and missed a free throw, Marcus Garrett missed the front end of a one and one and Devon Dotson hit one of two free throws to give KU a 71-65 lead. It was 71-68 when Garrett scored a stickback to give KU a five-point lead at 1:14. Dotson hit two free throws to make it 75-68 at :30.2.
KU (13-2, 2-1) will next meet Baylor at 3 p.m., Saturday, at Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas. TCU fell to 12-2, 1-1.
NOTE: Azubuike had successful right hand surgery on Wednesday, Self said in a release on Twitter before the game.
“Udoka underwent a successful surgery this morning in New York City to repair a damaged ligament in his right hand. Dr. Thomas J. Graham, of the NYU Langone Health Department of Orthopedic Surgery, performed the procedure and expects Udoka to make a full recovery,” Self said. He said Azubuike is expected to be able to return to basketball related activities in about five months.