New York — For 39 minutes of Tuesday’s Champions Classic clash with Duke at Madison Square Garden, the third-ranked Jayhawks found a way to overcome a startling number of turnovers.
But in the final minute, with a chance to take the lead, the Jayhawks’ 28th turnover of the night finally did them in and Kansas fell to the fourth-ranked Blue Devils, 68-66.
After getting a crucial stop on the defensive end when Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. missed a baby hook in the paint, the Jayhawks, trailing 64-63, pushed the ball up the floor with the chance to regain the lead.
Point guard Devon Dotson raced up the right side and zipped the ball across the floor to Marcus Garrett, who quickly dumped the ball down to sophomore David McCormack on the baseline. With KU coach Bill Self encouraging his team to attack, McCormack saw senior center Udoka Azubuike alone in the paint, but hesitated for two heartbeats before throwing the pass.
That allowed Duke forward Jack White to slide in front of the Sunday hop, and that all but iced the game for the Blue Devils (1-0).
“Don’t put that on him,” Self said of one of three McCormack turnovers on the night. “I thought he had a shot, a little three or four footer, and he tried to make the extra pass, which isn’t the percentage play. But that’s on me more than the kids.”
After the loss, McCormack agreed with Self but said his eyes grew wide when he saw Carey leave Azubuike all alone in the lane.
“I could’ve had a shot,” McCormack said. “But I thought Dok was open for a quick layup. I just misread the pass.”
No. 3 Kansas drops 68-66 decision to No. 4 Duke
Asked if he saw Azubuike point up toward the rim before he threw the pass, McCormack said simply, “I actually didn’t see him point up. I just saw a defender come over and help and I thought it would be a quick bounce pass.”
The turnover at the end was merely the final blow in a night in which Kansas continually gave the ball away from start to finish.
The Jayhawks (0-1) turned it over 18 times in the first half alone yet trailed by just three (33-30) at the break.
Asked if he thought turning it over 28 times and losing by just two was a silver lining on an otherwise gray night, Self paused and paid homage to a well-known eternal optimist and motivational life coach.
“Yeah, I guess if you’re Tony Robbins you could look at it that way,” Self joked. “I think we played uncharacteristic. I think we got out of character. I think we made easy plays difficult many times. I think a lot of that is nerves and the environment and guys wanting to do well.”
For a good chunk of the second half, things went much smoother for the Jayhawks than they did in the first.
Once they began taking care of the ball, the scoreboard began to tilt in their favor. After staring down a quick five-point deficit early in the second half, KU ripped off a 14-0 run to open up a nine-point lead at 46-37.
“We were more aggressive, defensively, getting after them and speeding them up how they were speeding us up,” Agbaji said after the loss.
The run, which featured several Kansas stops and was jump-started by an Agbaji backdoor cut and slam, put the momentum firmly on the side of the Jayhawks. But it would not stay there.
A pair of Duke 3-pointers pulled the Blue Devils back into the game and served as the starting pistol for the Kansas turnovers to return.
After turning it over just three times in the first nine minutes of the second half, KU coughed it up at key times during Duke’s run and down the stretch.
The Blue Devils answered KU’s 14-0 run with a 19-6 spurt of their own to reclaim control and put the pressure on the Jayhawks.
Dotson turned it over six times, Agbaji coughed it up five times and Azubuike turned it over four times, including back-to-back travels during the first half.
“Duke’s defense is better than (what we saw in) the exhibition games we played,” Self noted.
Despite that fact, McCormack said the turnover spree was disappointing for a group that featured veteran players logging 95% of the minutes.
“I think it was more unforced, clumsy mistakes, just not having (good) basketball IQ in the moment,” McCormack said.
The loss snapped KU’s three-game winning streak in the Champions Classic and put the Jayhawks in a spot that most on this roster have not experienced during their KU careers.
Because of that, along with the fact that this game was on college basketball’s opening night and featured another blue blood program on the winning side, the Jayhawks were noticeably irked by the outcome.
But those who spoke with the media after this one quickly turned the page to emphasize that what happens in the Champions Classic does not dictate how the rest of the season goes.
“We’re disappointed in the outcome because that was a game that either team probably could’ve won multiple times,” Self said. “We had ourselves in really good position in the second half and then the game got away from us and they made some plays. But it’s a learning experience. I don’t know that a game, win or lose, on Nov. 5 is going to count much in March, but still yet there’s a lot of things we can learn from this game and hopefully improve on.”
Added senior guard Marcus Garrett, when asked what he wanted to see from his team in response to Tuesday’s setback: “Just staying together. (We had) 28 turnovers and we lost by basically five points against a good ball club. So we’ve just got to stay together.”
Kansas returns to action Friday night for an 8 p.m. clash with UNC Greensboro in the season’s home opener at Allen Fieldhouse.