Jayhawks pass tough test at home

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Despite a sluggish first half offensively and some hot shooting by Texas A&M before intermission, Kansas managed to remain unbeaten in Big 12 play thanks to strong second half defense and the play of three Jayhawks in particular - Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and Jeff Withey.

At this point, most fans and prognosticators have moved on from merely counting the Texas A&M Aggies out of the race for the Big 12 Conference, and have moved one to wondering if they'll make the NCAA Tournament.

It's been tough sledding for Billy Kennedy's squad this season, who owned an 11-7 record heading into Monday night's nationally televised match-up with Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. But for 33 minutes, they certainly didn't play like a team that believed itself to be down and out.

For 33 minutes, they gave the No. 5 Jayhawks all they wanted, and on their home floor no less.

"We knew it was going to be a tough game," said Tyshawn Taylor. "We knew we weren't going to be able to score on the first shot, we were going to have to work our offense. It was less possessions today than usual. They're a good defensive team."

Even so, Kansas raced out to an 11-0 lead, and looked poised to put the game away early. But a flurry of three-pointers from the Aggies - who went 7-of-12 from beyond the arc for the game - helped keep them close, as the Jayhawks themselves went cold from the field.

Back-to-back buckets in the paint by Texas A&M forward David Loubeau gave the Aggies a 25-23 lead with 5:48 left in the first half. He then pushed the lead to three with a free-throw conversion, and a Dash Harris pick-and-score of Kansas freshman guard Naadir Tharpe at halfcourt led to a quick timeout from Jayhawks head coach Bill Self to stop the bleeding.

Kansas responded, going on a quick 5-0 mini-run on a Kevin Young putback and a traditional three-point play from center Jeff Withey.

However, after Travis Releford missed a three-pointer with 10 seconds left in the half, Aggies guard Dash Harris grabbed the rebound and raced down the court for a layup at the buzzer and a 30-28 Texas A&M halftime lead.

With Robinson smothered in the post by two - and sometimes three - defenders, he score just two points prior to intermission. But Taylor was once again a steadying presence, going 4-for-4 from the field and scoring 10 first-half points.

"I'm just playing, man," Taylor said. "My teammates are putting me in positions to be effective, my coaches are, too, and I think we're just playing good basketball. I'm making shots - that helps - I'm taking good shots and not that many (of them), and I'm making them."

For the half, the Aggies shot 48-percent from the floor including 50-percent from three-point range, while the Jayhawks were a lackluster 37.9-percent from the field and a miserable 23.1-percent from deep.

The second half, however, was a different story.

This is a team that has begun to secure its identity, and its one wrapped up in its ability to play suffocating, high-energy defense. With tons of length and athleticism on the perimeter, a bruiser like Robinson at the forward and an intimidating presence protecting the rim like Withey, when the Jayhawks have the switch turned to "on" defensively they can make even the simplest passes frustratingly difficult.

Such was the case for long stretches of the second half, when the Jayhawks forced multiple turnovers late in the shot clock and even a 35-second violation.

Withey in particular stood out, as the big seven-footer collected eight blocked shots and altered many more.

"It did a lot tonight," Self said. "Because we obviously didn't play very well. He did a great job altering and blocking."

"Him being a presence makes us a better team defensively," Taylor noted. "Our guards feel like we can pressure the ball a little bit more because we have help back there who can contest the rim."

The Aggies' second-half field goal percentage plummeted to a more manageable 34.8-percent, while the Jayhawks were able to get their own offense on track converting on 9-of-18 field goals and 17-of-20 free throws.

Robinson, much more active in the final 20 minutes, converted on all 10 of his foul shot attempts, and posted another double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and even tacked on four blocks of his own.

With 7:13 left in the half, a short jumper from Loubeau cut the Kansas lead to 44-42, but the Jayhawks finally began to pull away, building a 10-point lead during the next three minutes and change.

It was a lead which would stick to the final buzzer, as Kansas emerged victorious, 64-54.

Though Self is pleased with the way his team has started the conference season, he knows the real test is just beginning.

"The schedule is just now starting for us," he said. "Iowa State is one of the better teams in our league and we still have to go to other hard places. So, yeah, I'm happy we're 7-0, but I also know February is a different schedule than January just based on how many road games we have and the venues we have to go to."

The Jayhawks next take to the court Saturday, in Ames, Iowa, for their second regular season tilt with the Iowa State Cyclones. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.

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