CHICAGO — Sometime in the hours before his 2:30 a.m. snack of popcorn ended up on his beard — and Devonte’ Graham’s Snapchat story — Malik Newman was hitting a crucial shot in No. 4 KU’s 65-61 win over No. 7 Kentucky.
That shot, the “icing on the cake,” as he later described it, was massive. Yet it was the play before that encapsulated the difference between the six-deep squad that gutted out a win and the group of youngsters who played like they'd yet to figure it all out.
“It was a big-boy play,” said Newman. “That was a man’s play.”
View a gallery of images from Tuesday night's game between the Jayhawks and Wildcats at United Center in Chicago.
The descriptor could’ve applied to a number of things on Tuesday night.
Udoka Azubuike snatched away one of his five offensive boards with 10-and-a-half minutes left in the first half. He passed the ball out and called for it right back, eventually drawing a foul on his defender.
Five minutes later, Svi Mykhailiuk snagged an offensive board off his own missed layup. He tapped the ball into the hoop to put KU up by 4.
The Jayhawks (2-0) outrebounded the Wildcats 15-1 in the first half. Four of those were dead-ball team rebounds, a category that heavily favored the Jayhawks, yet the other 11 seemed to foreshadow a play that Newman’s first reaction to being asked about it was to congratulate the player who made it.
The Jayhawks finished with 18 offensive rebounds. Kentucky finished with 10.
“It’s all about the intangibles when you’re not shooting the ball well,” Newman said.
It was, in fact, one of KU’s 44 missed shots that led to the game’s biggest play.
With just over two minutes remaining and the Jayhawks ahead by one, Lagerald Vick drove the ball toward Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo, using two dribbles on the right side of the lane to get closer to the hoop.
Vick put up a contested jumper over the 8-foot-5.5 standing reach of Diallo. As the ball glanced off the backboard, Vick took two lightning-quick steps to his left.
Vick gathered for his jump as the ball clanked off the rim. He snagged it, regained control and kicked it out to the perimeter. The antithesis of that effort, the knack of a player putting himself in a position to succeed, was on display, too.
As Vick (four offensive rebounds) took the shot, Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox sagged into the paint. Upon recovering the ball, Vick was surrounded by three Kentucky players, but Knox continued to stroll toward the baseline, completely abandoning Newman on the wing.
Mykhailiuk, the recipient of Vick’s pass back to the perimeter, made the easy play, swinging the ball to Newman on his right. Before Newman was able to get both hands on the ball, walk-ons Clay Young and Chris Teahan had already stood up to begin celebrating.
“They’re freshmen,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, answering a question about a different topic that proved just as applicable. “The thought of what I have to do and our staff has to do is kind of tiring to me. Like I don’t want to think about it.”
It’s no coincidence the three KU players who touched the ball in that sequence were, in order, a third-year, fourth-year and third-year college athlete.
While the Jayhawks weren’t especially experienced — returning only three players who logged significant minutes on the team last season — they took advantage of a fresher Kentucky (2-1) squad with more size and length. For that, even while KU coach Bill Self had plenty to bemoan, the serious look he wore as he praised his team after the game said it all.
“It was a great, grind-it-out win,” Self said. “I’m really proud of my team.”