LEXINGTON, Ky. — On a floor hosting the nation’s two best backcourts, in a game featuring a mass of prodigious NBA talent, in front of a hostile crowd that spent a portion of the pregame attempting — successfully! — to set the Guinness World Record for “loudest indoor noise,” no player was more important than … Kansas fifth-year senior forward Landen Lucas?
Frank Mason led the way on the box score, and Josh Jackson had perhaps his best game as a collegian, but even so, after a first half marked by foul trouble, when his team barely kept itself in striking distance of the Wildcats, it was Lucas’ second-half burst of brilliance that pushed his team over the hump in its massive 79-73 win at Rupp Arena.
Kansas hung tight early, as both teams struggled to finish seemingly straightforward looks, but the Jayhawks found themselves in a hole the moment Malik Monk found his game. They made just eight of their first 23 attempts from the field, and entered the final five minutes of the first half averaging fewer than 0.70 points per possession. Meanwhile, Monk’s lethal combination of long-range shooting and smooth athleticism — in this case a 3 over the top of KU’s defense, followed by an impossible Euro step finger-roll flick in transition — turned a 15-10 game into a 20-10 affair in the blink of an eye. Monk finished the first half with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, and for large stretches it appeared the Wildcats were on the way to an emphatic blowout win.
It wasn’t until the final moments of the first half — when Josh Jackson soared around Bam Adebayo, and guard Lagerald Vick finished a rim-run alley-oop in transition — that the Jayhawks pulled things back. Even so, they finished the half 0-for-8 from 3, and just 12-of-30 from the field. That Kentucky went into the locker room ahead by a mere five points was … well, weird, to say the least. (Ten turnovers in 38 possessions didn’t help.)
Yet it was the Jayhawks who seized the initiative after the half. Lucas, whose first-half foul trouble limited him to just 12 minutes — and whose touches were mostly clunky, clumsy bounces — came alive. At the 13:24 mark, he muscled his way to an and-1 finish around Isaac Humphries; then a putback dunk on a Vick miss; then a steal, which turned into an offensive rebound, which set up a Devonte’ Graham 3; then, at the 10:39 mark, a dunk off a pretty dump-off from Jackson. By the time Lucas came out of the game at the 9:28 mark, the Jayhawks held a 58-54 lead.
Lucas was back at it again down the stretch, sealing off his defender in time to collect a layup at the 5:36 mark. After a Graham follow in transition made it 67-59, Lucas, strong again around the rim, extended the lead to 69-59 with 4:33 to play.
He would finish with 13 points on 6-of-6 from the field — a far cry from his two-point outing in KU’s loss to West Virginia Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Monk, so comfortable in the first half, struggled. He was 0-for-4 in the first 16 minutes of the second half, which included not only a couple of open looks from deep but two forces from almost behind the backboard on each side of the baseline. The Jayhawks’ defensive shifts — into a 2-3 zone, then a triangle and two, then back again — prevented Kentucky from settling in, in the half court. Without Derek Willis, who went 3-of-4 from 3 and had 11 points in the second half (and who averages just 7.1 on the season), Kentucky would have been in even deeper trouble entering the crucial final stretch.
Monk didn’t get his first bucket of the second half until 3:16 remained. It was a corner 3 that shrank the Jayhawks’ hard-won lead to just five points and forced Bill Self to call timeout. But it was too little, too late, as Mason and Graham eventually put the game away at the free throw line.
It was a bitter pill for the Wildcats: Kentucky’s second home loss of the season, like its first (UCLA), was a chance to top a marquee, national-title contender. Given the state of the SEC, this was Kentucky’s last such attempt.
By the time Kansas finished the job — after Lucas and his teammates had rebounded from their midweek loss with one of the most impressive wins of the season — there was no more talk of a world record for noise. By then, Rupp Arena was nearly silent.