LAWRENCE, Kan. — It took the end of a record 231 consecutive weeks in the Top 25 for Kansas to play like a ranked team again.
After falling out of the poll for the first time since February 2009 earlier in the day, the Jayhawks leaned on big man David McCormack and a defense that forced No. 23 Oklahoma State into 19 turnovers to roll to a 78-66 victory Monday night.
“Everybody has pride,” the Jayhawks’ Marcus Garrett said, “and seeing that? It just gave us some extra fire.”
McCormack had all but two of his 23 points after halftime to go with 10 rebounds, and Garrett scored 17 points while drawing eight fouls on drives to the basket. Christian Braun added 15 points, Jalen Wilson had 11 and Ochai Agbaji 10 for the Jayhawks (13-7, 7-5 Big 12), who climbed to No. 3 early in the season but had lost five of their last seven.
“We said it was a non-negotiable game,” McCormack said. “We were back home. We have to make sure we get these wins.”
The Jayhawks forced Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham into committing seven turnovers while committing four fouls, and the Cowboys (12-6, 5-6) finished with 18 turnovers as a team in a haphazard effort on both ends of the floor.
“Looking at the numbers the last couple games, I probably lead the country in turnovers,” Cunningham said. “I had the ball in my hands a bunch throughout the game. I’m asked to make a plot of plays – that’s what I asked for. I want the ball in my hands. I have to limit those turnovers and help us get shots.”
Cunningham finished with 26 points but was just 7 of 18 from the field, and fellow freshman Avery Anderson III had 13 points but also committed four turnovers, as the Cowboys allowed a 28-25 game at the break to get away from them.
“I don’t look to blame anybody but ourselves,” Oklahoma State guard Isaac Likekele said.
Early on, the Jayhawks looked like a team deserving of their ranking – or lack thereof – when they missed 13 of their first 15 field-goal attempts and had as many turnovers (five) as points through the first eight minutes of the game.
Somehow they manage to scratch out that meager halftime lead.
That’s because the Cowboys were even worse on offense. Cunningham had four of their 12 first-half turnovers, they went 1 of 8 from beyond the arc and failed to score a single second-chance point despite hanging tough on the boards.
McCormack, who poured in 24 points when the teams met last month in Stillwater, was 1-for-7 shooting in the first half. But the 6-foot-11 forward began to assert himself against center-less Oklahoma State in the second half, scoring an array of lay-ins and baby hooks to push the Jayhawks to their biggest lead at 41-32 with 15 minutes to go.
The Cowboys got within four before Kansas solved their zone defense.
McCormack was the linchpin of that effort, too. The Jayhawks kept getting him the ball in the middle, forcing the Cowboys to collapse and leaving the big man open. It was 58-52 when McCormack fed Wilson for an easy bucket, then he added a put-back of his own a couple minutes later to make it 65-55 with 4 minutes left.
The Jayhawks managed to hold Oklahoma State off the rest of the way.
“The second half we probably didn’t guard as well but the lid came off and we shot a lot better,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “We got to figure out how to play better early. I told our guys, we were up three and we should have been up 12 at halftime. You talk about unforced errors. … But there were some good things for a team that was really pressing.”
Oklahoma State was 7 of 26 from beyond the arc, often settling for outside shots rather than going to the rim – where the Cowboys routinely drew fouls. In fact, Cunningham had eight of his points at the free-throw line.
Kansas won the game with its defense. On the other end, the Jayhawks committed 19 turnovers of their own, and the only efficient production they got came from McCormack in the post. They were 5 of 15 from beyond the 3-point line, and that included a shot clock-beating heave by Braun in the final minute.
The Cowboys play Kansas State on Saturday.
The Jayhawks welcome Iowa State on Thursday night.