Stillwater, Okla. — The prettiest part was the outcome for sixth-ranked Kansas in a gritty 74-63 win over Oklahoma State on Tuesday night at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Despite 43% shooting from the floor and a scoreless drought of nearly 10 minutes — including the final 9:12 of the first half — the Jayhawks (12-1 overall, 1-0 Big 12) found a way to win with some timely buckets and much better poise in the second half.
The victory extended KU’s streak of conference-opening wins to 31, dating back to the 1991-92 season.
Nineteen of those 31 wins have come on the road and three of them have come against the Cowboys, who fell to 7-5 overall and 0-1 in Big 12 play.
Coming off the bench for the first time this season, Kansas senior David McCormack delivered several of those buckets, scoring 17 points and grabbing 15 rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting in 23 minutes as a reserve.
Asked after the game what his purpose was on Tuesday night, McCormack said, simply: “Be a defensive presence and rebound.”
Added Agbaji of McCormack’s night: “It was great,” I didn’t know he had 15 rebounds until we came into the locker room at the end. He was spectacular.”
Jalen Wilson, who shot just 1-of-6 on the night, also added 15 rebounds for Kansas, which held OSU to 36% shooting on the night.
McCormack surrendered his starting spot in favor of KU senior Mitch Lightfoot but remained calm and confident and found himself on the floor when it mattered most on Tuesday.
Arguably the game’s biggest moment came with 9:35 to play, when KU senior David McCormack, benched to start in favor of Mitch Lightfoot, ripped down a 2-handed rebound of a missed shot by Jalen Coleman-Lands and went right back up for the and-one bucket. The bench roared, — Lightfoot the loudest — McCormack hit the free throw and Kansas led by a dozen again after seeing its 29-15 first-half lead reduced to zero as the team’s entered halftime tied at 29.
Kansas missed 19 consecutive shots to close the first half, but Agbaji said KU coach Bill Self’s message at halftime was more encouraging than anything.
“He just said, ‘The lid will come off,’” Agbaji said.
Added Self: “To win a game on the road and miss 19 straight shots, that’s not going to happen very often.”
Oklahoma State ended the first half on a 14-0 run and extended the run to 16-0 with a bucket on the first possession of the second half.
KU senior Mitch Lightfoot’s basket down low at the 19:24 mark of the second half (on KU’s first possession) went down as the first points for Kansas in 9:49 of game time.
The Jayhawks had an additional 15 minutes of clock time to think about their offensive ineptitude during the halftime break.
KU shot just 28% in the first half and finished on the wrong end of a 14-0 run by the Cowboys that featured the home team keeping Kansas without a point for the final 9:12 of the half.
Things got so bad offensively for the Jayhawks that one KU fan posted a poll on Twitter at halftime that asked, “Will Kansas make a shot in the second half?” The options for the answer were “No” and “Maybe.”
The flow of KU’s offense wasn’t much better to open the second half, but the Jayhawks found a little rhythm early on thanks to the play of Dajuan Harris Jr.
The KU sophomore picked up a bucket in close to tie the game at 40 and, on the ensuing OSU possession, swiped a steal that led to another 3-pointer by Agbaji. That gave KU a 43-40 lead and it grew to 50-43 after five points by Braun and a baseline jumper in close from McCormack.
“At this level, you have to have some sense of poise,” McCormack said.
Most of that run came with Agbaji (16 points on 5-of-13 shooting in 30 minutes) on the bench with three fouls.
The KU lead ballooned to double digits at the 11:25 mark, when Jalen Coleman-Lands scored his first points of the night, burying a 3-pointer from the wing to put KU up 53-43.
Making his first start of the season — and the ninth of his Kansas career — Lightfoot made a quick impact, recording four points and blocking a pair of Oklahoma State shots in the game’s first four minutes.
KU’s leading scorer, senior Ochai Agbaji was red-hot to open the game, knocking in a pair of 3-pointers and three free throws — after getting fouled on a 3-point try — in the game’s first five minutes.
He pushed his point total to 11 on a hard slash to the basket from the corner that put the Jayhawks up 18-11. In for Lightfoot, McCormack picked up the assist on Agbaji’s third bucket, rifling a two-handed pass to the senior on his way to the rim for the uncontested two.
McCormack was far from flawless in the first half, but that positive play appeared to settle him down a little.
He scored three consecutive buckets at one point, screaming toward his teammates on the bench after the third. The baskets came in a variety of ways, with a dunk, a hook shot in the post and a put-back.
That stretch put Kansas up 24-13 and left the Jayhawks with little more to like for the half’s final 10 minutes.
Despite the team’s struggles on Tuesday and McCormack’s own personal struggles for most of the season, there he was, on the floor with the Kansas offense largely running through him for much of the second half.
At one point, when Agbaji picked up his third foul of the game with 13:11 to play, KU was forced to play without its leading scorer and most reliable offensive option. But McCormack delievered when called upon during that stretch and a four-point lead when Agbaji went out had grown to a 59-51 lead when he checked back in. A few minutes later, after back-to-back buckets by Remy Martin, the lead was at a game-high 15 points (72-57) and the Oklahoma State fans started heading for the exits.
Kansas will head to Texas Tech this weekend for its second Big 12 road contest of the season.