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Quick recap: Kansas rallied from double-digit deficit to hold off Kentucky in Champions Classic

AP Photo/Erin Hooley

Kansas head coach Bill Self yells from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Chicago.

CHICAGO — With three sevens missing in Kentucky, two injured and one still ineligible, he managed to catch the ball in the paint.

The Wildcats got better at denying Dickinson passes as the night wore on. Freshman guard Rob Dillingham made four 3-pointers, then fifth-year senior Antonio Reaves made a layup just two minutes in to give Kentucky a sizable first-half lead.

K.J. Adams Jr.’s hard hitting gave Kansas a spark later, and the Jayhawks clawed back a brief advantage after trailing by 14. But it was point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. — who started his season. A game in which he didn’t take a shot — scoring eight points in a minute to erase Kentucky’s lead and lead the Jayhawks to an 89-84 victory on Tuesday.

Dickinson finished one of the best performances of his college career with 27 points and 21 rebounds, and Harris had 23 points.

“That’s big boy basketball,” Harris said. “It’s always a battle, a dogfight every time we play. But they, they thought I had to beat them, they left me open, and then I had to go up and make the shot.

Freshman guard Jamari McDowell entered for his first action late in the night, played some tough defense and sank a pair of free throws to seal the game after Reed Shepherd missed a potential game-tying 3.

Kevin McCuller Jr., despite a quiet offensive night, had a triple-double — 12 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists — the third in KU history and second since the creation of the Champions Classic (after Denzel Valentine in 2015). Senior Reeves led the young Wildcats with 24 points and Dillingham, Ado Thiero and Shepherd all reached double figures.

KU came in with a very experienced roster and was initially unfazed on the big stage of the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks opened the scoring and after a brief hesitation, Harris drained a 3, unable to believe how open he was. Adams sinks a hook shot. KU leads 9-0.

But Theoro hit a 3 to stop the bleeding for the 17th-ranked Wildcats, Trey Mitchell hit both a 3-point play and a more routine transition 3-pointer, and the Jayhawks slopped back and forth at halftime to allow Kentucky to tie. The game was 11-11.

It gave Kentucky its first lead of the night. The Wildcats continued to benefit from good ball movement on the outside to create open looks from deep. When Dillingham went on a 15-5 run, the Wildcats were up and Phil forced a self-timeout.

The Jayhawks could do little to stem the tide as halftime approached, as Kentucky allowed Kentucky to stretch its lead to nine points against KU’s key players before reaching double digits on Thiero’s tough putback dunk.

KU seemed to dissolve into complete confusion when the defense lost control of a rebound on DJ Wagner’s missed free throw. But Theoro Dickinson was fouled, the center made a pair of free throws, and after a Dillingham turnover he drained a 3 at halftime to cut the deficit to 48-41, allowing the Jayhawks to salvage some momentum.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had 20 and 20 before,” Dickinson said. “But obviously, when you have the best master’s degree in the country, the top ‘3’ in the country, they help me a lot.”

Harris added: “We wanted him to be a monster. That’s why we got him.

Harris and Dickinson continued to fuel the KU offense after halftime, as an avalanche of fouls turned the game into a stop-and-start affair that gradually began to favor the Jayhawks thanks to Adams’ heroics.

“KJ is the most athletic guy in the country, and I feel when he turns around and plays hard,” McCuller said, “and that’s every possession he’s out there.”

McCuller gave KU a 64-62 lead when he finished off a drive between a pair of Kentucky defenders.

A pair of tough plays for freshman Elmarco Jackson — a foul on Antonio Reaves in transition led to a 3-point play, then a dribble by Reed Shepard — allowed Kentucky to reestablish a narrow lead. Then Adams fouled out, robbing the Jayhawks of momentum — until Harris stepped up.

The No. 1 Jayhawks (3-0) will participate in the Maui Invitational — this year’s event in Honolulu — starting Monday at 8 p.m. when they face host Chaminade, a Division II school.

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Written by Henry Greenstein

Henry Lawrence is a sports editor at the Journal-World and and serves as a KU beat writer while managing daily sports coverage. He previously worked as a sports reporter for the Bakersfield Californian and holds degrees from Washington University in St. Louis (BA, Linguistics) and Arizona State University (MA, Sports Journalism). Although a native of Los Angeles, it has often been said that he does not give off “California vibes”.

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