Live it up Jayhawks fans, your ‘Hawks are headed to the Sweet 16 in San Jose, Calif., after beating Kentucky 88-76 at the United Center on Sunday in the second round of the Big Dance. KU will next face Southern Illinois at 6:10 p.m. on Thursday.
“We are obviously very excited about the win,” said KU coach Bill Self. “I thought we played very well here in Chicago. We are real anxious and excited to move on. Hopefully, we can just tighten up a few things and play good next weekend also.”
This game looked like it might be KU’s night when guard Mario Chalmers hit a tough three-pointer off his left-hand dribble with the shot clock expiring to open KU’s scoring 50 seconds into the game. Chalmers then scored KU’s next points with another three-pointer about a minute later before fellow sophomore Brandon Rush followed up with his own three at the 16:53 mark. While KU only led 11-7, you just kind of had the feeling that the Rock Chalk Chant would be echoing throughout the Untied Center at the end of the game.
However, Kentucky was in this game for the first half and down just six points (36-30) at halftime despite shooting only 40.7 percent from the field. But after Wildcat star center Randolph Morris (game-high 22 points) was forced to the bench after picking up his third foul at at the 17:46 mark, KU opened up its 42-38 lead and never looked back. When Morris returned at 12:43, KU led 56-42. Kansas’ lead never got closer than 11 points and the ‘Hawks actually led by 20 points with 4:53 left in the game.
The Jayhawks also got their running game in gear the second half and shot a scorching 64.3 percent from the field. For the game, KU shot 56.6 percent and 62.5 percent from three-point land. Kentucky made just 41.4 percent of its shots and 38.5 percent from three.
The night belonged to KU’s super sophomore trio of Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, and Julian Wright. They combined to score 56 of KU’s 88 points. Wright had a team-high 21 points with eight rebounds; Chalmers scored 16 points, tied his career high with eight assists, and had four steals, and Rush scored 19 points on six-of-nine shooting and four-of-five from three-point range.
“Brandon is a great shooter,” Self said. “I don’t think he has had a game where he has been on a roll like he was today. ...For him to make six out of seven that came at key times really gave us a lot of momentum or they were backbreakers for Kentucky. I thought Brandon played great. I thought Mario and Julian were also great. I think that our sophomores really played well for us.”
And with minutes left in the game, the famous Rock Chalk Chant and a resounding chorus of “Let’s Go Jayhawks” echoed throughout the arena, turning United Center into Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
So now it’s on to San Jose for a Thursday night matchup vs. Southern Illinois. But as Self said, his team first needs to “tighten up a few things.”
And what might those things be?
“We need to rebound a little better,” said freshman forward Darrell Arthur, whose Jayhawks were beat on the boards 32-30 and 15 to nine on the offensive glass. “They beasted us, obviously. Morris did a good job down there (eight rebounds). We just have to do a better job of blocking out.”
For at least this evening, though, Arthur and his teammates were going to enjoy the moment. But they’re not ready to truly celebrate just yet. KU still has unfinished business, and the ‘Hawks are on a mission to make an indelible mark on Kansas basketball history.
Just four more wins for the school’s third NCAA title and the most wins in school history.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith certainly wouldn’t be surprised if this happened.
"They’re right up there (with Florida, North Carolina, and UCLA, three teams that Kentucky faced this season), “ Smith said. “In Brandon Rush, he’s as solid a player as we’ve seen. He can shoot the ball, put it on the floor. Then you add Julian Wright. I also like Kansas because of their perimeter guys. Russell Robinson does a great job running the team and Mario Chalmers can also do a lot of things.”