LAWRENCE, Kan. – There’s a reason UTEP had never been invited by Kansas to play at Allen Fieldhouse.
The Miners probably won’t get invited again, either.
It took a frantic rally from a 15-point second-half hole, a driving go-ahead layup from Marcus Garrett with 22.4 seconds left and some poised foul shooting from Dajuan Harris for the No. 13 Jayhawks to squeak out a 67-62 victory Thursday night in a game added late to the schedule to prevent a long layoff before each school’s conference tournament.
“We played a good team tonight,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We weren’t very good for 30 minutes, at all. We played a team that was better than us. But we played 10 really good minutes, so I’m leaving here feeling pretty good.”
David McCormack scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half, and Ochai Agbaji had 19 points as the Jayhawks (19-8) avoided a rare second loss in Allen Fieldhouse this season in what was supposed to be a Big 12 tourney tune-up.
Instead, the Miners (12-11) nearly beat Kansas for the fourth time in five meetings, which includes their double-overtime NCAA Tournament win on the way to the 1966 national title – the historic game made famous by the film “Glory Road” – and a second-round NCAA tourney upset of the top-seeded Jayhawks in 1992.
“This was the largest crowd we’ve played in front of all year,” UTEP coach Rodney Terry said, “and I thought our guys did a good job for the better part of three quarters of the game keeping the crowd out of it. This building, it’s one where the fans appreciate good basketball, and I thought we did a good job working the game.”
Souley Boum’s free throws for UTEP knotted the game at 62 with 1:30 left, and the teams traded empty possessions before Garrett drove the right side of the lane for a layup. Boum raced the other way but lost control of the ball out of bounds, and UTEP was forced to foul the seldom-used Harris, who made good on his free throws to seal the win.
Bryson Williams led UTEP with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Boum finished with 16 points and six boards.
“I don’t make a lot of complaints about the officiating,” Terry said, “but we should have been at the foul line 12 minutes into the game. They’re a good defensive team. They do a great job of guarding. But if you can just climb into a guy and hold them the whole way, that’s really hard to play against.”
The Big 12 had built in time at the end of the season to allow for makeup games caused by COVID-19, but the Jayhawks somehow managed to play all 18 of their conference games on time. So rather than a long layoff before the Big 12 tourney, the Jayhawks called up UTEP, which was facing a similar predicament in Conference USA.
They probably wish they left the phone on the hook.
Kansas missed 12 of its first 14 shots, at one point going 6 1/2 minutes without a field goal, and allowed the Miners to race to a 20-12 lead. Self burned through timeouts trying to slow their momentum, but Williams and Boum kept answering with buckets, and UTEP wound up carrying a 34-20 lead into the break.
It was the second-fewest points scored by the Jayhawks in a half this season.
The Miners, who stretched the lead to 15, were still clinging to a 50-36 advantage with 12:20. That’s when the Jayhawks turned up the defensive pressure to ignite a comeback. Garrett did most of the damage, slicing to the basket and drawing fouls, and soon their deficit had been trimmed to 50-44 with 9:26 remaining.
The rest of it evaporated when McCormack answered three straight UTEP turnovers with three straight baskets, and the big man converted a three-point play a few minutes later to give Kansas its first lead at 62-60 with 2:41 left.
The Jayhawks held on the final couple minutes to avoid the regular season-ending upset.
“It was just a lot of highs and lows in that game,” McCormack said, “down 15, there was a period where we had a nice rhythm going, a nice stretch, we lost it a little bit but got it right back. We finally just locked in mentally.”
Rather than attempt to sell tickets to the late addition to the schedule, Kansas gave away about 1,300 to front-line workers in the Lawrence area. That’s the majority of the roughly 2,000 fans the Jayhawks allow per game.
UTEP won the rebounding battle but was done in by second-half turnovers. The Miners had just four in the first half but had 10 in the second, and the Jayhawks turned them into 16 points during their frantic comeback.
Kansas made the free throws that mattered in the closing minutes – and not many more. The Jayhawks were just 16 of 26 from the foul line, continuing what has been a season-long issue for them.
UTEP begins the Conference USA Tournament in Frisco, Texas, while Kansas heads to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri. Both will find out this weekend their seedings and opening matchups for next week.