LEXINGTON, Ky. — As Kentucky drew within two points for the third time in less than a minute in Saturday’s second half versus No. 9 Kansas, an opportunity to potentially tie — or even take a lead for the first time since the 9:35 mark of the first half — appeared to be staring the Wildcats in the face.
Kansas guard Kevin McCullar’s 3-pointer clanged off the rim. Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky’s rebounding extraordinaire, was in prime position to snag the ball. He got a hand on it with no KU player within an arm’s length under the basket.
And then … the ball slipped out of his grasp. It bounced off fellow Wildcat Sahvir Wheeler and into the waiting arms of Jayhawk forward KJ Adams Jr.
Kansas reset on offense, ending the possession with a pair of free throws from Gradey Dick that pushed its lead to 64-60 with 5:30 remaining.
The play was a microcosm of the night for Kentucky.
Thanks to Tshiebwe’s rebounding prowess, it’s a near-given the Wildcats will have their way with any opponent on the boards.
Just not Saturday.
And that played an outsized role in ultimately dooming the Wildcats to a 77-68 loss at Rupp Arena, snapping the Wildcats’ four-game win streak.
The Jayhawks won the rebounding battle 34-29. Kentucky (14-7) grabbed just four offensive rebounds — none in the first half — in the loss, the fewest in a game since Tshiebwe joined the program prior to last season.
“I didn’t think they would stop us from offensive rebounding like they did,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “All the tape I watched — they played a high level game that way. They were physical and banged and they got balls. And ones that we wanted to get, they jerked from us. So give them credit.”
OPINION: Has John Calipari’s tenure with Kentucky run its course?
UPSET: No. 2 Alabama blown out by Oklahoma
Kansas coach Bill Self, who improved to 5-5 against Kentucky since Calipari’s first season in 2009-10, said he was “praying” his team wouldn’t lose the rebounding battle in lopsided fashion.
“We did a great job defensive rebounding. We haven’t rebounded the ball like that in a while,” said Self, who avoided his first four-game losing streak as KU’s coach thanks to Saturday’s victory. “(Tshiebwe is) so good and big and active. … I think we were probably fortunate tonight that the ball bounced our way a little bit. But we did do a great job on the glass.”
Kentucky’s inability to rebound its own misses led to another sobering tidbit for the Wildcats: They failed to score a single second-chance point.
“No second-chance points. None. You’ve got to be kidding me,” Calipari said. “So I’ve got to watch the tape and say, ‘Why did that happen?'”
Kentucky forward Jacob Toppin claims that’s the primary reason Kansas (17-4) won.
“If we got at least five more offensive rebounds, that would have been five more chances to get a bucket,” he said. “So it’s big.”
He then elaborated further.
“The games that we’ve won, we’ve dominated on the boards,” Toppin said. “We didn’t do that tonight.”
Blame him, he said.
“I was gassed. I don’t know if I’ve got do more conditioning or what, but I didn’t attack the glass like I usually do,” said Toppin, who notched four rebounds Saturday after pulling down eight or more in three of his past four games. “So that’s on me. … But it’s a team effort. We didn’t dominate the boards, so we’ve got to be better at doing that if we want to win games.”
Despite lacking its usual rebounding expertise, the Wildcats put themselves in position to win in the closing minutes after trailing 41-34 at halftime. Their efforts would have been enough to notch a marquee victory. If only Kansas didn’t have an answer every time Kentucky drew close.
The Wildcats cut the deficit to two (or fewer) points five times in the second half. But they never got over the hump to take the lead.
“They deserved to win the game because they made three 3s down the stretch,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to make those kinds of plays, and they made them.”
Self also praised his team’s execution in the clutch.
And his players’ resilience.
“You look out there, we’re not the biggest team,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of depth. There are some things we don’t do great. But our guys do compete and they fight. I think there’s a lot of pride in that.”
UK’s loss let an efficient offensive effort go to waste. The Wildcats made 49% (25 for 51) of their shots, mere decimal points off the Jayhawks’ 49.2% (31 of 63).
Kansas was just better in specific areas in a matchup between the two winningest programs in the history of college basketball.
The Jayhawks made six of their 16 3-point attempts, a 37.5% conversion rate — more than double the Wildcats’ percentage (2 of 13, 15.4%). And while Kentucky made 16 free throws to Kansas’ nine, the visitors only missed one.
Kentucky went 12 for 12 in the second half at the free throw line, but couldn’t overcome its 4-of-11 showing in the opening 20 minutes.
“The first half we don’t make free throws, including two front end one-and-ones,” Calipari said. “In the second half we go 12-for-12. That’s who we are. We could be a 75%, 80% free-throw shooting team. But in the first half, that hurt us.”
Bottom line, Calipari said, his team had opportunities to surge ahead. He believed the Wildcats “were going to win the game. We had it right there.” But it was not to be. The Jayhawks, the defending national champions, staved off the comeback bid.
Calipari was disappointed, yes.
But not discouraged.
“We fought. They’re a top-10 team,” said Calipari, referring to the Jayhawks. “We’re trying to reestablish who we are. I was hoping we could get this (win). But you know what? The kids fought and tried.”
Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @RyanABlack.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kansas beats Kentucky in SEC/Big 12 showdown