LAWRENCE — The eyes of the college basketball world on Saturday were once again focused on Kansas.
On this afternoon, at least, the Jayhawks put their best — and biggest — foot forward.
KU overcame a shaky start and an even more perilous finish to earn a 74-68 home victory over Tennessee, securing a win in the nationally televised Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup. Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks’ lone frontcourt player in the tilt, was plagued by foul trouble but finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and a game-best plus-minus of plus-19 in just 27 minutes.
Azubuike notched two big-time blocks in the game’s final minute to help preserve what was then a five-point lead. Running back on offense after the second rejection, Azubuike delighted a rocking 300th straight sellout crowd at Allen Fieldhouse by delivering a finger wag gesture in the direction of the fans.
Later asked about the victory and specifically about the celebratory gesture, Azubuike offered a sheepish response.
“It was fun,” he said plainly. “It was fun.”
A few moments of scattered chuckles and awkward silence passed before sophomore Devon Dotson, who finished with team-highs of 22 points and seven assists, leaned in and played the role of postgame point guard.
“Keep going,” Dotson whispered, smiling. “Keep going!”
“I mean, it was a great game,” Azubuike continued. “Kind of the team, we needed a stop, so I was glad I got one, I was able to get that stop. I just kind of wanted to pump the team up and pump my teammates up.”
Azubuike did plenty of that Saturday for the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks (16-3), though not out of the gate.
KU’s lone big with forwards Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack suspended, Azubuike picked up his second foul and went to the KU bench with 10:39 left in the opening period. Forced to play a five-guard lineup, the Jayhawk defense unraveled — KU surrendered a 7-for-7 shooting stretch for the Volunteers (12-7), who rallied from a three-point deficit to take a 26-19 lead.
But Bill Self gambled, and it paid off.
Self reinserted Azubuike into the lineup with 5:48 left in the frame, and the 7-footer made an immediate impact, throwing down a dunk on his first possession back. That conversion kick-started a 12-0 run that saw the home squad take a 31-26 lead, with Azubuike notching seven points in that rally. Azubuike departed to a heart ovation with 1:34 left before halftime, where KU held a 37-30 lead.
KU built a 13-point lead in the first six minutes of the second half, but it was Tennessee’s turn to rally.
Rick Barnes’ crew cut its deficit to four on a Yves Pons dunk with 10:35 left, and the Volunteers appeared to be in fantastic shape when Azubuike picked up his fourth foul with 8:25 remaining. The careless reach-in infraction sent the sent the center to the bench with the Jayhawks up six, and three straight point-blank makes for the Volunteers made it a one-possession game, 66-63.
Azubuike reentered after a KU timeout, and the move worked — though the same couldn’t be said of Barnes’ decision to deploy “Poke-a-Doke,” the strategy of intentionally fouling Azubuike to send the career 39.8% free-throw shooter to the stripe.
Azubuike went 2 for 2 to send the home crowd into a frenzy, then went 1 for 2 after what appeared to be an unintentional foul to deliver a 69-63 lead with 3:34 left.
“Very subtly, that may have been the biggest play of the game,” Self said of Azubuike’s first two makes, “because it gave him confidence after he made those two to go knock a couple more down.”
Azubuike finished 6 for 11 from the free-throw line, a clip Self said the team would’ve sold out for a month ago. Now? Self believes Azubuike has the potential to be a 60-to-70 percent shooter from the stripe for the rest of his final collegiate season.
“Like I told you, I’m not worried about my free throws. It’s all my routine. It’s just me going through my routine and making it,” Azubuike said. “There’s no pressure on me making free throws. I know it’s a big topic for y’all, the media and stuff, but it’s not really a big topic. It’s going out there and just doing my routine and just knocking it down.
“If it goes in, it goes in. If not, it’s next play.”
Barnes, who said he “really respect(s)” Azubuike for the year-to-year improvement he’s seen from the center since last year’s clash between these teams, said he isn’t particularly fond of deploying the intentional foul strategy but added it’s something he’ll do when necessary.
“I don’t know if I’d call it Hack-a-Shaq. I’d call it playing the percentages, ’cause he’s not going to miss those (dunks),” Barnes said. “I mean, he’ll put you and the ball in the basket. ...
"Those are big free throws, and you know what? Maybe we made him get better tonight.”
Again, though, Tennessee didn’t go away.
A free-throw make and a John Fulkerson jumper trimmed the deficit back to three with 2:04 left. But Azubuike again went 1 for 2 from the line, and with 1:20 left, he intercepted a pass into the paint to secure a much-needed steal. Dotson went 1 for 2 from the line on KU’s next possession to put KU back up five, 71-66, with 55 seconds left.
That’s when Azubuike channeled his inner Dikembe Mutombo. He blocked Fulkerson's jumper with 44 seconds left, and after a Tennessee offensive rebound, Azubuike blocked Pons' try in the paint.
“Overall, I mean, it’s very obvious we’re not the same team with him not in the game,” Self said of Azubuike. “We need him in the game.”
On his way back up the court, Azubuike delivered the finger wag gesture, turning up the volume on an already rocking atmosphere.
Dotson hit two free throws with 31 seconds left, and a Jordan Bowden layup accounted for Tennessee’s final points. KU gave the game its final score on a free throw from Ochai Agbaji, who was the Jayhawks’ only other double-figure scorer (16 points).
“Having him in there when he gets the angle, I mean, it’s pretty much two points,” Agbaji said of Azubuike. “So when we look for that and he’s working down there and we find him, it’s always good.”
Pons finished with a game-high 24 points, while Bowden had 19, all in the second half. Fulkerson's 15 rounded out the Volunteers' double-figure scorers.
KU’s season continues with an 8 p.m. Monday clash with Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., the final game of McCormack’s suspension. De Sousa isn’t eligible to return until the Jayhawks’ regular-season finale March 7 at Texas Tech.
“We did enough good things to win, but certainly it wasn’t the prettiest,” Self said of Saturday’s outcome. “I’m not leaving out of here elated in any other way other than we just won the game.”