Heading into Friday evening’s season and home opener against a very game University of Vermont Catamounts club, Wayne Simien expected a tough game. The six-foot-nine inch senior forward and his University of Kansas teammates got all that they wanted and more as Vermont hung tough the entire game as the Jayhawks escaped with a 68-61 victory.
After scoring 25 points on 8-15 shooting from the field and 9-10 from the line while snaring 14 rebounds -- 11 in the first half -- a ragged and relieved Simien expressed was glad to have survived.
“Man, who scheduled that,” questioned Simien. “First games, your supposed to ease into the season but that was a great team and we knew they were going to come out and play us tough.”
In reality, it wasn’t surprising to see a charged up Vermont team take the court and move out to an early lead as they took a 14-8 lead on a jumper by guard David Hehn forcing Kansas coach Bill Self to call a timeout with 13:51 remaining in the first half.
Enter freshman forward Darnell Jackson who injected some life into the Jayhawks with his work on the offensive boards. The six-foot-eight freshman forward from Oklahoma City scored six of his eight points and grabbed a pair of his four offensive rebounds over the next four minutes and thirty five seconds as Kansas went on a 15-2 run to take a 23-16 lead thanks to a pair of Keith Langford free throws.
The free throws were points eight and nine of the Ft. Worth (TX) senior’s 12 points during a cold shooting, 3-10 from the field, 4-8 from the line, night.
“They showed why they have two players that won conference player of the year in their conference, they are really good guys,” said Langford who offered praise to Vermont. “Sorrentine didn’t shoot the ball that well, but those guys played tough and they’re just competitors and I feel very fortunate to win this game because I don’t think we win this game last year.”
Thanks to some opportunistic baskets from deep, Vermont was able to claw their way back into the game as they staved off the Kansas run to narrow the gap to 31-28.
In a game touted as a battle between two of America’s big men. Vermont’s Taylor Coppenrath got off to a slow start scoring only six of his team high 23 points in the first half. For his part, Kansas’ main man Simien got off to a nice start by scoring 10 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in front of representatives of nine NBA teams.
“It was what I expected out of Vermont, I didn’t think that we would play as tight and anxious and nervous the first half, but certainly they’re good,” said Self during his post-game press conference. “There’s not a lot of teams we’ll play this year with two better players on the same team than Vermont, that was a good win for us I’m sure they’ll be in the tournament again this year.”
In the second half, both teams turned inside as their perimeter players struggled to make open looks. Vermont senior point T.J. Sorrentine struggled to get open looks as Kansas senior Aaron Miles dogged him into a 4-22 shooting night. On the other end, the Portland native Miles went though a tough night of his own making only 1-9 attempts from the field while handing out nine assists and turning the ball over five times.
Finding Coppenrath in the paint, Vermont clung to a 58-54 lead when he made a layup with just 4:31 remaining. After a Simien dunk and a media timeout, Jayhawks sophomore guard J.R. Giddens -- who had looked to put the ball on the floor and pull up for jumpers for much of the evening -- squared up and banged home a high arching three for the most important of his 12 points on the evening giving Kansas a 59-58 advantage with 3:32 remaining.
“I knew that I could hit the shot, and I was like look for me,” said a confident Giddens. “My teammates looked for me and I came through on my word, like always.”
After the Giddens three, Kansas was able to hold onto the lead thanks to some spirited defense and Miles only bucket, a 17 foot pull up as the shot clock expired with one minute and 55 seconds to go, as they held on for the 68-61 victory.
“Well Aaron’s one of those guys that regardless of what anybody thinks you should never look at his shooting percentage, you should look at when he makes shots,” said Self of his point guard who has hit some big shots during his career. “He’s got a history of making shots when it counts the most and certainly he and J.R. made the two biggest shots of the game in my opinion. But, yeah Aaron is a clutch guy.”
With the season opening win behind them, the 1-0 Jayhawks will look to put their number one ranking on the line against St. Joseph’s at 9 pm Tuesday night during a nationally televised game. Junior forward Christian Moody who chipped in with a crucial offensive rebound and pair of free throws with 53 seconds to go, he had hoped to contribute more than the five points and six rebounds he added during 20 minutes of playing time.
Regardless, he was happy for the test and is ready to move on.
“This is a great test for us, it was pretty close for comfort but we really needed this,” said Moody. “I think even though it was a close game, we should be happy because Vermont is a great team.”