Kansas basketball’s 7-footer took over Saturday, and as a result, the Jayhawks took charge of their own destiny in the chase for a Big 12 championship.
Just how good was Udoka Azubuike? Allow the senior center’s head coach to weigh in.
"He was great," said Bill Self. "Probably made himself a little bit of money today."
Azubuike scored 23 points on 11-for-13 shooting and hauled in a career-high 19 rebounds in a dazzling 36-minute outing, propelling No. 3-ranked KU past top-ranked Baylor 64-61 at Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas. The victory snapped the Bears’ 23-game winning streak, extended the Jayhawks’ own streak to 12 and created a tie atop the Big 12 standings with four games left.
Azubuike wore the satisfaction of emerging victorious in the high-profile, high-stakes battle on his face during a postgame new conference, emotion he was more than happy to explain.
"I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Oh, he can’t do this,’ ‘He can’t do that.’ All my life, I’ve been looked down on (in) everything," Azubuike said. "Just coming out here and playing the way I played, giving my all on the floor for my teammates and to everybody, it just makes me emotional."
Azubuike, the Big 12 preseason player of the year, was held to a six-point, 11-rebound outing during the teams' first meeting, a 67-55 victory for the Bears on Jan. 11 in Lawrence.
"Coming in, I had a mindset that, yeah, I’ve been hearing people say all kinds of stuff, doubting me and all that stuff," Azubuike said. "My teammates did a good job getting me the ball. We just stuck to what Coach wanted us to do. By God’s grace, I was able to deliver down the stretch."
Devon Dotson had 13 points and Isaiah Moss 11 for KU, which is looking for a Big 12 title one year after its national record-breaking streak of 14 straight regular-season league championships came to an end.
"It was a great game," Self said in a postgame radio interview. "Fun. Probably the toughest we’ve played all year long."
The Jayhawks (23-3, 13-1 Big 12) led for the game’s final 28 minutes but in the final seconds almost blew what had been an 11-point second-half advantage.
An Azubuike put-back dunk, his eighth of the contest, put the visitors up 60-53 with 2:08 remaining. Freddie Gillespie hit a pair of free throws to cut the Bears’ deficit to five, but shooting a one-and-one with 40 seconds left, Gillespie was inaccurate on the front end, and Azubuike went to the deck to rip away his 19th and final rebound away from Mark Vital.
Dotson hit two free throws to re-establish a seven-point lead, but the Bears (24-2, 13-1) didn’t go quietly — Jared Butler hit a trey with 29 seconds left to cut the deficit to four, and after an Ochai Agbaji turnover on an inbounds attempt, MaCio Teague drilled his own 3 to make it a one-point game, 62-61, with just 16.2 seconds remaining.
But Agbaji was able to make his next inbounds pass without an issue, and the ball eventually got to Moss, who was true on two free-throw tries with eight seconds on the clock. Jared Butler’s potential game-tying 3 was off and Moss grabbed the rebound to secure the Jayhawk victory.
"We obviously didn’t execute late. … But God dang, we competed," Self said. "Guys hung in there. We rebounded, even though Vital was a monster on the glass. Couldn’t be happier with our guys. They’re so excited, and they deserve to be excited. That was a heck of a win."
Butler scored 19 points and Gillespie and Matthew Mayer had 10 apiece for the Bears, who shot just 39.7% from the floor.
"All games should be fun, but when there’s always pressure to win, sometimes it takes the joy out of it where it’s more of a relief than it is joyful," Self said. "But when you play a 50-50 game like this today, it’s all joy. Yeah, I’m excited. I’m proud of our kids. …
"As you can tell I’m a little wired and fired up and I know our kids are fired up. They deserve to be."
KU will look to stay on top of the league standings when it takes on Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. Monday in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will then finish with a road contest at Kansas State (12:30 p.m. Saturday), a home finale against TCU (7 p.m. March 4) and a regular-season finale at Texas Tech (1 p.m. March 7).
Baylor, meanwhile, will play host to K-State (7 p.m. Tuesday) before traveling to TCU (1 p.m. Saturday), welcoming Texas Tech (8 p.m. March 2) and finishing its schedule at No. 17 West Virginia (noon March 7).
"We haven’t done anything yet. All this did was set up a bigger game on Monday and a bigger game (next) Saturday and those sorts of things," Self said. "But to think we’ve been looking up at Baylor all year long ... and the guys kind of just hung in there and hung in there and hung in there. It’s nice to grind and see some good things happen."