LAWRENCE — Fresh off one of the most impressive in-game stretches in Kansas basketball’s up-and-down season, Bill Self wanted to acknowledge an err in judgment.
Thing is, the player at the center of the admitted miscalculation was also the one at the heart of the No. 13-ranked Jayhawks’ breakneck rally, a run that secured a much-needed victory.
Ochai Agbaji scored 23 points to help KU to an 84-72 victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, hauling in six rebounds, dishing two assists and committing no turnovers in a stellar 36-minutes performance. The true freshman guard went 8-for-12 from the floor and drained five 3-pointers in the victory.
Celebrating the one-month anniversary of the day he debuted, the at one time lightly recruited three-star player out of Kansas City, Mo., notched his second 20-plus-point outburst and third double-figure scoring game across KU’s last four contests.
Down Silvio De Sousa (ineligible), Udoka Azubuike (season-ending hand injury), Marcus Garrett (day-to-day with an ankle sprain) and now Lagerald Vick (indefinite leave of absence), it’s easy to envision doom for the Jayhawks (18-6, 7-4 Big 12) if Self hadn’t burned the emerging superstar Agbaji’s redshirt. Speaking after Saturday’s outcome, however, the KU coach wasn’t eager to pat himself on the back for that decision.
“Unbelievable. It’s incredible to me,” Self said of Agbaji’s first month as a college basketball player. “It just goes to show you what a bad decision that I made initially in misreading the situation, because he is beyond his years. He’s got an energy and a poised look about him that this team really needs.”
When KU needed him most Saturday, Agbaji certainly showed up — and showed off.
Laboring to gain separation for the game’s first 25 minutes, the 11-point favorite Jayhawks from that point forward stepped up and stepped on the Cowboys’ necks. A Devon Dotson layup at the 13:58 mark broke a 49-all deadlock and kick-started a 19-4 run for KU, which made five 3-pointers in the rally and closed with four straight makes from deep.
Agbaji’s corner trey off a Quentin Grimes drive-and-dish started the stretch of 3-point success, with the jubilant freshman smiling and shouting as he turned to Azubuike and De Sousa on the KU bench.
Self lauded Agbaji’s infectious positivity and cited it a critical asset moving forward.
“What that (positivity) does, that covers up when you don’t make shots or don’t pay attention to scouting report or when you screw up, it covers up for that because it’s not magnified,” Self said, “whereas when you don’t have that, everything’s magnified.”
Grimes followed Agbaji’s make with a pair of his own, Agbaji added another, and Dedric Lawson drained the fifth and final trey in the rally, a fourth in four possessions for KU. Facing a 68-53 deficit with 9:16 left proved too steep a hill for the undermanned Cowboys (9-14, 2-8) — Mike Boynton’s squad currently deploys just seven healthy scholarship players.
Lawson finished with a game-high 25 points and seven rebounds, while Dotson (18 points) rounded out the double-figure scorers for KU.
Mitch Lightfoot — who started the second half in place of freshman forward David McCormack, who started the game in place of Vick — also contributed to the 19-4 run, throwing down a put-back dunk off a missed Grimes floater. The junior forward’s afternoon ended with 6 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks in a high-energy 20 minutes.
“You know, he hasn’t had a lot of things go his way of late, but he keeps grinding,” Self said of Lightfoot. “He’s our best rim protector and probably the quickest-twitch big guy we’ve got. I don’t think he was the best player in the game, but I thought he was certainly the most important player in the game today from him sparking us, especially in the second half.”
Cameron McGriff scored a team-high 22 points for OSU, which lost its fifth straight in league.
Back to Agbaji, who, in addition to play, appears to be showing leadership beyond his years.
Lawson recalled how Agbaji brought the team together before Saturday's game and delivered to the group a positive message. The junior forward said Agbaji has blossomed into one of the most vocal players behind the scenes and at practice.
“I definitely think people say Ochai (is) overachieving, but just seeing how he works in the summertime, things like that, you can expect things out of guys like that,” Lawson said. “I understand how the game of basketball goes. Guys who put in the most work and the most effort, when their time is called, normally they do shine.”
Agbaji acknowledged it’s “definitely crazy” and “just surreal” to think of everything that’s happened over the last month, though he added he’s enjoying the ride.
It’s been a run Self said he didn’t see coming, at least not to this degree.
“I didn’t think that he would get 23 (points) in Big 12 games, no. I didn’t think that,” Self said. “But I thought eventually he’d be one of our best five players, and of course it took about one game to figure that out.”
Entering Saturday with six defeats in his team’s last 13 contests, Self candidly labeled the group “a bunch of duds, in some ways” of late, particularly in a 74-67 defeat at Kansas State earlier in the week. Vick’s indefinite leave of absence was announced just two days later, with no timetable set for the lone senior’s return.
“We’ve been taking it day by day,” Agbaji said of the team’s adversity. “A lot has happened this year. Coach has been talking to us. Everybody’s been talking to us. We’re just staying focused.”
KU faces a short turnaround ahead of its 8 p.m. Monday contest at TCU, where the Jayhawks will look to improve on their 1-6 record in true road contests. Garrett, the team’s defensive ace, is doubtful.
If Agbaji has any say in the matter, though, KU will have at least one thing: a tight huddle.
"Once we got into the locker room (Saturday), we were just like, 'This game's past us. We're just ready for TCU,’ ” Agbaji said. “They're a great team. We got them here but on the road we haven't been as productive so we just have to lock in."
No. 13 KANSAS 84, OKLAHOMA ST. 72
OKLAHOMA ST. (9-14)
Anei 2-6 4-4 8, McGriff 7-14 6-8 22, Dziagwa 4-9 0-0 11, Waters 4-6 2-2 13, Likekele 5-13 3-4 14, Demuth 1-2 0-0 2, Jones 1-5 0-0 2. Totals 24-55 15-18 72.
D.Lawson 10-17 2-2 25, McCormack 0-3 0-0 0, Dotson 6-10 5-5 18, Grimes 2-7 0-1 6, Agbaji 8-12 2-2 23, Lightfoot 2-3 2-5 6, K.Lawson 1-3 0-0 2, Moore 2-7 0-0 4. Totals 31-62 11-15 84.
Halftime — 36-36. 3-Point Goals — Oklahoma St. 9-20 (Waters 3-5, Dziagwa 3-6, McGriff 2-6, Likekele 1-2, Jones 0-1), Kansas 11-29 (Agbaji 5-7, D.Lawson 3-6, Grimes 2-6, Dotson 1-4, Lightfoot 0-1, K.Lawson 0-1, Moore 0-4). Fouled Out — Lightfoot, McGriff. Rebounds — Oklahoma St. 25 (McGriff 6), Kansas 37 (Lightfoot 9). Assists — Oklahoma St. 11 (Likekele 6), Kansas 14 (D.Lawson 5). Total Fouls — Oklahoma St. 15, Kansas 15.