Kansas City, Mo. — By virtue of his spot in the jump circle to open Thursday’s Big 12 quarterfinal contest with No. 25 Oklahoma, Kansas junior Ochai Agbaji was immediately thrust into the spotlight on Thursday night at T-Mobile Center.
But it wasn’t until Agbaji’s red-hot stretch late in No. 11 KU’s 69-62 victory over the Sooners that he took over as the game’s most important player.
Moments after OU had trimmed what once was a 20-point KU lead down to three points with just under 7 minutes to play, Agbaji hit three consecutive 3-pointers to help Kansas (20-8) maintain its cushion and advance into Friday’s semifinals.
Those shots, all pure and all shots Agbaji sought out the minute he crossed half court, put the momentum firmly back on the Kansas bench.
They also came shortly after Agbaji was slammed to the floor on the defensive end. While smiling while discussing the fall after the game, the mix up appeared to put a little extra juice in Agbaji’s game in real time, and he went looking to make the Sooners pay.
“I guess you could say that,” Agbaji said after the victory. “But, not really. I was just thinking next play and what I needed to do for my team.”
That line of thinking started well before the three 3-pointers. Agbaji actually followed up his fall with a hard finish at the rim that inspired him to flex and roar after the foul call. Moments later, he finished a lob on an inbounds play off of a pass from Dajuan Harris.
In all, the junior from Kansas City, Mo., finished 9-of-14 from the floor, 4-of-8 from 3-point range and hit all four free throws he attempted while helping make up for Kansas not having second-leading scorer David McCormack in the lineup because of COVID-19 protocols.
“He was special there,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of the knockout blow Agbaji delivered. “Ochai was the best that I’ve seen, for a period of time in the second half, that we’ve had in a long time.”
Agbaji, who handled the opening tip for McCormack, said he had not jumped to start a game since his senior year of high school.
“They told me like right before the game,” he said with a laugh. “And I kind of forgot how it went. I didn't know where he was going to throw the ball. But we still got the ball so I guess I won the tip.”
For a while during Thursday’s victory, it hardly looked like the Jayhawks would even be in position to need any big baskets in the second half.
After a slow first four minutes, Kansas turned things up defensively and dominated the final 16 minutes of the half in building a 35-15 halftime lead.
Reserves Harris (4 points, 5 assists in 29 minutes) and Mitch Lightfoot (11 points, 4 rebounds in 20 minutes) played big minutes and delivered on both ends, and Agbaji and Marcus Garrett (17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, with five rebounds and four assists) were equally as problematic for the Sooners (15-10).
“We didn't make shots,” said Self, offering his only criticism of KU’s first half. “But we did everything else great. We rebounded. We defended. We shared it, turned them over.”
Harris was particularly key to KU’s stellar first half. The backup point guard swiped two steals where he just took the ball from the man he was guarding and another where he poked it away from unsuspecting OU forward Brady Manek (19 points) in the post.
He also hit a floater, finished a hard-driving layup at the rim in transition and continually worked as a ball mover to keep the floor spaced and shooters open.
“Dude, he’s everywhere,” Lightfoot said of Harris. “And he impacts everything.”
While the two sides swapped roles in Thursday’s second half, when OU outscored KU 47-34, Self was not terribly upset.
For one, KU won the game. For two, he liked that the second half forced his team to grind out another win, much the way it had to last week in a come-from-behind home victory over UTEP.
“It was a great game to win,” Self said. “Because they put real game pressure on us and we had some guys step up and make plays.
“To score 69, that's a lot of points for us, with no David and three starters going 3 for 18. So that's a positive. The negative is, obviously, we left our game at halftime.”
The victory pushed second-seeded Kansas past the 20-win mark for the 32nd consecutive season and into Friday’s semifinals, where they’ll take on third-seeded Texas, which knocked off Texas Tech, 67-66, on Thursday night in a back-and-forth game that saw both teams enjoy good-sized leads for chunks of time.
Shaka Smart's Texas squad swept the regular season series with the Jayhawks, winning by 25 at Allen Fieldhouse in early January and in overtime in Austin, Texas, last month.
Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m., following Friday's other semifinal matchup between top-seeded Baylor and Oklahoma State.