Perhaps the former Jayhawk superstar and current KU director of student-athlete development/team manager knew what was to come. And perhaps Manning - one of the smartest players to ever play the game - knew this was just the start of something special.
While Kansas wound up winning big (107-67) and advancing past the first round for the first time since 2004, the first 12 minutes of the game were anything but special. Niagara played with Kansas. Possession after possession, Niagara answered with jump shots and layups. The Purple Eagles tied the game at 14-all and were only down 24-18 with just under eight minutes left in the half before it happened. Kansas went on a 28-9 run to blow the game open at halftime, 52-27.
Yes, that was indeed quite special. So what was a big key that ignited the run?
"We started switching ball screens," Self said. "They made two threes early and when we started switching ball screens, they didn’t make another three (Niagara made just two-of-19 threes for the game). That wasn’t all because of defense; they just missed shots. Long misses usually mean long rebounds that can be the first pass to a fastbreak. We got some easy baskets because we were able to run down some long balls."
KU scored 19 fastbreak points in the half and also forced 12 turnovers.
The Purple Eagles, quite simply, never had a chance in the second half. KU head coach Bill Self began clearing the bench with under seven minutes remaining, and walk-ons Matt Kleinmann and Brennan Bechard even entered the game with 5:07 left in the game.
"I thought we played very well," Self said. "I thought we didn’t really guard very well early. I think it was 14-14 and then we kicked it in the last five minutes of the half and kind of carried it on in the second half. But we’ve got to tighten a few things up. We got sloppy. But I thought for the most part, we shot the ball well and executed pretty well."
KU made shots all night long. The 'Hawks shot 54.1 percent from the field, including 57.1 percent in the second half. They also shot a scorching 66.7 percent from three-point land the last 20 minutes.
"Shooting’s contagious," Self said. "When you’re playing with the lead, the basket grows."
This was truly a game of men playing against boys. Or as Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said on Thursday: "It is certainly a David vs. Goliath situation and we need to play at a level we haven’t played at before to win."
They didn’t. It was the Jayhawks who played at a high level, most notably guards Russell Robinson, Sherron Collins, and Mario Chalmers. Robinson may have had the finest game of his career with 16 points, eight assists (seven in first half), and five steals. Chalmers scored 19 points on eight-of-nine field-goal shooting, while Collins had 15 points, six assists, and four steals.
KU’s seldom-used reserves even got in on the action. Junior guard Jeremy Case was three-of-five from three-point land for nine points; Brady Morningstar scored five points, including two on a high-flying dunk that energized the Jayhawk faithful. And walk-on Brad Witherspoon had one point, two rebounds, and an assist.
Yes, it was a game Self and the KU players and fans could finally enjoy after being bounced in the first two rounds in NCAA play the last two years.
"Those guys have answered a lot of questions about first-round losses," Self said. "I think they were sick and tired of it. And that was quite the motivation tonight. I know I was sick and tired of it. ...I’m proud of our guys."
"I think everyone on the team got their jitters out and was just ready to play," Chalmers said, "and I think we’re going to be ready for Sunday now."
Manning likely knew that all along.
- KU’s 52 points in the first half marked its best opening half of the year.
- Kansas scored a season-high 107 points, eclipsing its previous high of of 97 points (twice).
- KU’s 40-point victory is the second largest in the school’s NCAA Tournament history.
- Kansas’ 14 steals tied the school’s NCAA Tournament record of 14 vs. BUY in 1993.
- KU held Niagara to just 31.8 percent field-goal shooting and out-rebounded the Purple Eagles 50 to 27.