Shorthanded Kansas basketball didn’t just survive Monday night’s clash at Oklahoma State.
Indeed, the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks thrived — and that was particularly true of a first-time starter.
Down to seven scholarship players for a second straight game after the suspensions of frontcourt players David McCormack and Silvio De Sousa, KU nevertheless rolled to a 65-50 road victory over the struggling Cowboys in Stillwater, Okla. Leading by just three in the opening minutes of the second half, the 7½-point-favorite Jayhawks reeled off a 32-8 run to capture the victory with ease.
“It’s been kind of a hard week,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Our guys played pretty maturely and have acted very maturely since it started. The best we could’ve done was probably do what we’ve done the last two games, so yeah, I’m pretty happy with ’em right now.”
Making his first start for KU, freshman guard Christian Braun paced KU with 16 points, 9 rebounds and 2 steals, all team-highs. The 6-foot-6, 205-pounder out of Burlington has averaged 14.7 points across his last three games.
“I just wanted to step up, do what I always do,” Braun said of his making his first start. “We were pretty shorthanded so we’ve all got to step up at this time. Just being in the starting lineup is not much different. You’ve just got to be one of the guys that start it off right.”
Junior guard Marcus Garrett, who flirted with a triple-double Monday, indicated he’s finally seeing Braun play with a confidence level that matches his abilities.
“When he first got here and I seen him play, that was the thing I told him: I told him he was going to play this year,” Garrett said. “I told him we were going to need him, and I always tell him before every game (that there) ain’t no pressure. Just go out there and be yourself.”
KU (17-3, 6-1 Big 12) raced out to a 17-point lead, then saw that advantage almost completely evaporate before halftime.
After an 0-for-5 shooting start from 3-point range, the Jayhawks drilled 6 of their next 9 attempts from beyond the arc. That stretch was a balanced one, too — Braun hit a pair, while Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Tristan Enaruna and Isaiah Moss each connected on one, with Moss' conversion giving KU a 24-7 lead with 7:55 left before intermission.
KU’s early foul trouble — Dotson, Agbaji, Tristan Enaruna and Udoka Azubuike each finished the first half with a pair of infractions — opened the door for OSU (10-10, 0-7), which reeled off a 17-1 run to cut its deficit to a single point, 25-24 with 1:15 left in the first half. The Jayhawks, who finished the opening period on a 2-for-12 shooting skid, held a 29-24 lead at the break.
But it didn’t take the Jayhawks long to re-establish their 17-point lead — and then some.
Braun, who led all scorers in the first half with eight points, hit a trey two minutes into the second half to kick-start a 16-2 run for the visiting squad.
“He’s just starting to figure out,” Self said of Braun. “We just need to get some guys that can make some shots, and he certainly gives us a better opportunity to make those.”
OSU's Cameron McGriff hit a pair of free throws after Braun's make, but that proved to be the last competitive gasp for the Cowboys — Agbaji hit a free throw, Braun and Moss followed with 3s, Garrett and Agbaji hit layups and Moss capped the rally with two free-throw makes to push the lead back to 17, 45-28, with 13:25 left.
“They were doing a good job staying in on Doke (Azubuike), so we had a lot of open looks tonight,” Braun said. “Guys got us the ball. That’s me and Isaiah’s job, to knock down shots, and that’s what we did.”
McGriff hit another free throw to end the run, but KU didn't let up. Azubuike converted a layup, Moss a jumper, and, after a McGriff layup, Agbaji made perhaps the wildest play of the season — his botched lob pass intended for Azubuike was so off the mark that it actually rattled in for a 3, delivering KU a 21-point edge, 52-31, with 10:41 remaining.
Azubuike, who was limited to six points on 3-for-4 shooting but made his presence felt with seven rebounds and five blocked shots, smiled and shrugged after Agbaji's fluke make. Later, the 7-footer's fastbreak dunk pushed the KU lead to 27 at the 6:17 mark, all but extinguishing the hopes of a Cowboy squad that had been 5-5 against the Jayhawks in the last 10 matchups between the squads at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Moss scored 13 points and Dotson 11 to round out the double-figure scorers for KU, who also got a 7-point, 9-assist, 8-rebound showing from Garrett.
“He got a triple-single but it was close to being a triple-double,” Self said of Garrett. “Yeah, he’s a really good player. I don’t know that we’ve had anybody in the middle of a zone that I can remember any better than what he is. ...
"Hey, we’ve got a ball-playing dude in Marcus Garrett. He and Christian Braun were by far the best players in the game for us today. I thought they were both terrific. And everybody else did fine. Everybody else played pretty well.”
McGriff's 18 points led the Cowboys, who went 2 for 18 from 3-point range.
KU will get the suspended sophomore forward McCormack back for its next contest, a 3 p.m. Saturday tilt with Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. Self said he expects the team to stick with a four-guard starting lineup with McCormack now playing the role of backup to Azubuike at the five-spot, thought he added McCormack “will still play the same amount of minutes or close to the same.”
“We’ve put ourselves in a position in the league to leave ourselves not much margin for error,” Self said in a postgame radio interview. “Texas Tech is a team that guards. They could’ve beaten Kentucky (on Saturday night, a 76-74 overtime loss). ... They’re good. They’re good. They’ve given us fits some here of late, especially down at their place last year. We need to be prepared to play against an unbelievably good defensive team.”