LAWRENCE, Kan. — The two winningest programs in college hoops history played one of the best games of the 2015-16 season on Saturday night.
“Loudest atmosphere I’ve ever been in,” Kentucky senior Alex Poythress said.
Coming from a four-year player at that program, which plays at Rupp Arena about 20 times per season, it’s quite a statement.
And yet, amazingly enough, this wasn’t even the best game played in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this month. Even KU coach Bill Self said as much afterward. But it sure was entertaining. No. 4 Kansas needed overtime to finish off No. 20 Kentucky at the Phog 90-84. Following an utterly captivating second half, KU outscored UK 14-8 in the bonus session.
The unpredictable, foul-filled affair gave Bill Self his 201st win at home as Jayhawks coach. If you missed it, he’s only lost nine in the hallowed arena. He got pretty close to being handed No. 10, though.
Kentucky, which led by six at halftime and didn’t relinquish the lead until the 4:51 mark of the second half, was nonetheless plagued by foul trouble. The Wildcats were called for 33 fouls. Kansas was whistled 20 times. John Calipari admitted in the postgame presser that the fouls and attrition hurt his team late, especially in OT.
“We had our chances in regulation,” Calipari said. “What I told them after is, I’ve gotta do a better job of teaching these kids how to win. They do not know how to win a game.”
As the game went on, Kentucky’s roster got thinner. Kentucky’s Derek Willis was permanently forced out thanks to an over-the-back call with 4:51 to go in a 64-all game. Marcus Lee fouled out with 1:24 remaining and his team leading 72-71. Skal Labissiere picked up two hacks in OT, the final one coming with Kentucky trailing 81-78 with 2:11 to go. Poythress fouled out with 25 ticks left. Isaiah Briscoe and Dominique Hawkins finished with four fouls apiece. Kansas made eight more fouls shots (30) than Kentucky even attempted (22).
“We’ve gotta learn how to play without fouling,” Poythress said. “It’s been something we’ve been struggling with all year.”
Poythress finished with 13 points and eight boards. (He had a ferocious dunk on Cheick Diallo, too.)
Junior shooting guard Wayne Selden was the star on Saturday. He had an incredible showing for Kansas (17-4), putting up 33 points and leading all scorers. He’d never scored more in a college game. Selden’s output put him over the 1,000-point mark for his career. He also did this. Teammate Devonte Graham called it “a big momentum swing … on somebody’s head.”
That somebody was Skal Labissiere.
“I feel like we never really took a step back, never really got rattled,” Selden said. “It’s been a process for us for a couple of years now. We’ve taken some shots, taken some hard losses, and we’ve been battle-tested for a few years now. I feel like this is going to make us better.”
Selden, who has on the whole had a very good junior season, played the best game of organized ball since Kansas was in last summer’s World University Games. There, he consistently looked like KU’s best player. Self was thrilled with his decision-making on Saturday.
“I thought Wayne today was as Smart offensively as he’s been all year,” Self said.
Tyler Ulis led Kentucky (16-5) with 26 points, but he had two mistakes late that prevented UK from clinching the win in regulation. His turnover with 2.2 seconds to go prevented what could have been a final-shot/game-winning opportunity. Ulis also provided eight assists and three steals.
“I didn’t have many openings. Forced a few things late,” Ulis said. “Those late turnovers weren’t eneeded. I should have just gave the ball up late.”
Poythress said of Ulis, “He’s not the reason we lost.”
Both Poythress and Calipari attributed two rebounds lost in the closing two minutes — offensive rebounds grabbed by Kansas — that made the difference in regulation. By the time overtime arrived, the fouls kept piling up and KU was riding the momentum of its crowd and Kentucky’s depleted assault. UK lost despite shooting 53 percent from the field and stealing twice as many balls (10 to five) as KU.
“I’m still hacked off that we lost,” Calipari said. “I’ll probably think of something that was good. When you hve a chance to win like we did. You choke it. Every play is a winning play. And it’s not just about missing free throws.”
Yeah, you could say college basketball had a successful Saturday. This was an end-of-the-month exclamation point to college basketball having an incredible January.