KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Kansas coach Bill Self said the final couple minutes of Friday night’s Big 12 semifinal against Baylor didn’t take anything away from his team’s impressive second-half performance.
Even if it almost took away a win.
After overcoming a halftime deficit to build a comfortable lead, Self put in his backups to coax the game to its conclusion. But the No. 22 Bears rallied, forcing the Kansas starters back onto the floor, where they finally managed to finish off a 70-66 victory.
“I had one guy ask me yesterday, `Hey, when you get a lead in the last two minutes, why don’t you play your bench?”‘ Self said. “And I did. And it didn’t work out so great.”
Al Freeman’s 3-pointer got Baylor within 68-64 with 20 seconds left, and that was when Self sent his top players back on the floor. Jonathan Motley’s putback then got the Bears within three with five seconds to go, but Devonte Graham calmly made the second of two free throws at the other end to put the game away.
Graham had 14 points and eight assists as the Jayhawks (29-4) beat the Bears (22-11) for the third time this season – and avenged their tournament loss from a year ago. Perry Ellis scored 20 points.
Kansas will play sixth-ranked Oklahoma or No. 9 West Virginia for the title Saturday night.
“Proud that our guys didn’t quit at the end,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Kansas really executed well in the second half. I told coach Self, they guard so well.”
Freeman scored 14 points and Rico Gathers had 13 points and nine boards, but nobody in green got into much of a rhythm against the Jayhawks’ man-to-man defense. Taurean Prince was held to nine points, going 0 for 6 from beyond the arc, and Ish Wainwright managed four points on 2-for-9 shooting before fouling out.
The victory was the 13th straight for Kansas, which can match the number of tournament titles won by every other Big 12 school with its 10th. The Jayhawks also improved to 3-0 at the Sprint Center this season with their eighth consecutive win over the Bears.
Not that they didn’t have a chance: Baylor forged a 23-21 lead after a sloppy first half.
The teams combined for 17 turnovers, Kansas at one point throwing it away on four straight possessions. Baylor’s Lester Medford tossed a pass to nobody at one end of the floor, and then Ellis launched an air ball from beyond the arc as the teams went into a deep offensive funk.
For a while, it seemed as if nobody wanted to score.
There were only two real highlights: Graham had five assists for Kansas, including back-to-back alley-oop lobs to Ellis, and Jake Lindsey hit a buzzer-beating 3 to give the Bears the halftime edge.
Kansas began to take control as soon as it left the locker room.
Ellis went on a personal 8-0 run, and Wayne Selden Jr. woke up a sleepy crowd with a soaring dunk. A few minutes later, Graham tossed up a lob from just inside midcourt that Selden threw down for a 43-33 lead.
“We knew we were playing flat, kind of dead, not a lot of energy,” Graham said. “We knew we weren’t playing to our capability. … In the second half we tried to change it.”
Baylor began trying to get the ball to Gathers and Prince in the paint, but the Jayhawks did a good job of collapsing on defense. The Bears missed nine consecutive shots during a critical stretch midway through the second half, and that allowed the Jayhawks to establish a comfortable lead.
They wound up needing just about every point of it.
“We know the game is never over with us,” Freeman said. “We all have confidence in each other. Nobody has quit in them. We’re going to play every possession hard until it’s the last one in the game.”
Asked whether having to put the starters back in late in the game is a coach’s worst nightmare, Self replied: “No, the worst nightmare would be losing. This was just a bad dream.”
Baylor: Motley finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. … The Bears were playing in their third straight semifinal. They still have never won the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas: Carlton Bragg had 10 points and seven rebounds. He had a career-high 12 points in a quarterfinal win over Kansas State. … Frank Mason III had nine points and six rebounds.
Baylor heads back to Waco, Texas.
Kansas plays for its first title since 2013.