Chicago — There were plenty of career nights and big time performances during No. 1 Kansas’ 89-84 win over Kentucky at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night, and all of them were deserving of the praise they received from their coaches, teammates and the media.
But on top of Dajuan Harris Jr.’s career-high 23 points, Hunter Dickinson’s “monster” night of 27 points and 21 rebounds and Kevin McCullar’s solid-and-steady triple-double of 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, there was another performance that might not have shown up as much on the stat sheet but may have had just as big of an impact on KU winning the game.
That’s tonight’s “What Was It, How Did It Happen & What Does It Mean” in which we dive into a specific aspect of the current KU basketball team after every game we cover, home and away.
Let’s get to it.
What Was It
For the first several minutes of Tuesday’s victory, Kansas looked like the better team. The Jayhawks played smarter, took better shots, dictated the way the game was played and attacked the younger Wildcats in building an early 9-0 lead.
But then the Wildcats started to use their athleticism and speed and took control of the game during the latter part of the first half. 3-point shots fell in bunches, the Wildcats ran at will and their athleticism and activity forced the Jayhawks into several bad possessions on offense.
That carried over into the second half, as well, and Kentucky built a 58-44 lead and appeared to have Kansas on the ropes.
But then KU junior KJ Adams stood up and matched the Wildcats’ athleticism with an athletic spurt of his own, bringing easy buckets, big time points and a ton of momentum to the KU side.
“He was huge,” McCullar said of Adams after the victory. “KJ’s the most athletic guy in the country, I feel like, when he’s turnt up and playing hard. That’s every possession he’s out there. He’s an above the rim player for sure.”
Back-to-back buckets by Dickinson pulled Kansas to within eight, but the Jayhawks (3-0) still faced an uphill climb.
Adams stepped in at that point and helped pull the Jayhawks over the hump while simultaneously bringing the Kansas crowd back into the game and putting doubt into the minds of the Wildcats.
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How Did It Happen
In a few words: On pure emotion. But there was so much more to it than that. After grabbing a rebound of a missed free throw by Tre Mitchell, Adams quickly found a way to attack on the other end, taking a pass from McCullar and converting a tough, and-1 layup.
After the bucket, Adams squatted low on the baseline and pumped his fist three times as the crowd roared around him.
“I play a very emotional game,” Adams told R1S1 Sports after the victory. “That’s kind of what fuels me. I love this game so much, and every time I have a chance to get out on the court, I really give it my all and just show my heart out there in the game.”
Adams missed the free throw to keep from completing the old-fashioned three-point play — “Other than him missing free throws, I thought KJ was great,” KU coach Bill Self said after the win. — but his bucket still cut the Kentucky lead to 60-54.
After another KU stop following a missed 3-pointer by the Wildcats (who finished 12 of 38 after being 9 of 18 from downtown at one point during in the first half), McCullar pushed the ball up the floor and saw Adams sprinting ahed of the pack.
What followed was an even bigger highlight, an even bigger surge of emotion and momentum and a UK timeout.
“Usually it’s Juan that throws the half-court lobs,” McCullar joked of his alley-oop pass to Adams that pulled Kansas within four. “And I was just trying it out today. I saw KJ point up to the rim so I just threw it up there and he went and got it.”
Said Adams of the lob: “I don’t remember (if I pointed or not), but when he’s racing up the court like that, we just kind of know what’s going on and he threw it so I went and got it.”
Adams scored another tough layup, on yet another assist by McCullar, a couple of minutes later to keep the pressure on the Wildcats, who wound up wilting in the final minutes of the game.
That came with Adams sitting on the bench after fouling out — he picked up his fourth and fifth fouls just 17 seconds apart — but even that didn’t bother him.
See, with Adams out, freshman wing Jamari McDowell got his first chance to play because KU needed to find an athletic defender who could compete. McDowell did exactly that and then went and iced the game with a pair of free throws in the final seconds.
“It’s very frustrating, and it kind of put me in a weird place because I wanted to get back out there but I know my teammates can handle it,” Adams said of fouling out. “When Jamari got out there, it just made me really smile because he’s just a special player and he got a good moment in there. So, it made me upset but, at the same time, I’m glad Jamari could show what he could do.”
What Does It Mean
Adams finished Tuesday’s game with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting, adding 4 rebounds, 3 assists, no turnovers, a block and 2 steals to his final line.
Nearly all of that underscores his athleticism and the impact he can have on the court while tapping into it with reckless abandon and using it the way an All-American would use his.
Tuesday was the first real sign of Adams starting to understand that.
Think about it: On a night when his teammates made a serious assault on the record books, Adams put up numbers that were worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as a career-high, a Champions Classic record and just the third of its kind in the more than 100-year history of the rich and storied Kansas basketball tradition.
The quicker Adams understands that his team wants and needs him to assert himself whenever possible, simply because of what his physical tools can bring to their attack, the easier it will be for everyone else around him.
Adams is a smart player and a driven competitor. He knows all of this and then some. Sometimes he just has to be coaxed into bringing it out.
“I’m always on KJ because I know he can be dominant on the boards or even making the right plays,” Harris said after the win. “I want the best for him and he knows that.”
Added Adams, when asked about Harris pushing him: “He usually gets on me for not shooting the ball, passing the ball a little too much. Me and him, I feel like, play the same. We like to share the ball, but, yeah, he’s always on me and he makes me a better player all the time.”
Never one to try to take the spotlight for himself, Adams said Tuesday was a great example of what this Kansas team can be a couple of months down the road after the younger guys and newcomers have just a little more time to find their footing.
“That just shows you how special our team is,” Adams said. “When you have someone who gets 20 and 20 and then another player that has a triple-double, it’s amazing. And then we have a point guard who shoots the ball like (Juan did). Early wins like this only matter so much, but it’s definitely a good game to get and have one under our belt the first part of the season.”
And it’s even better for Adams to get an early taste of how important he can be now that he’s no longer just a role player and an underclassman on a good team.
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