KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bill Self could sense something was wrong.
Less than an hour before his team played Western Kentucky on Friday, the energy and spirit that’s so often present in the Jayhawks’ locker room was missing. Smiles were few and far between. During pregame shootaround, the Jayhawks lacked their normal bounce.
“There was a little bit of a different feel,” Self said. “I actually noticed it. We were tight.”
And Western Kentucky wasn’t.
All of it nearly resulted in a history-making night at the Sprint Center, with Western Kentucky just a few shots away from becoming the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Kansas -- which trailed by one point at intermission and only led by four points with 30 seconds left -- eventually escaped with a 64-57 victory. But Self and his players know that Friday’s win will be their last of the season if they don’t refocus before Sunday's round of 32 game against No. 8 seed North Carolina.
The Tar Heels, led by former Kansas coach Roy Williams, defeated No. 9 seed Villanova 78-71 in an earlier game.
“I think personally it’s part of human nature to not be as prepared for a smaller team,” Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson said. “But in a North Carolina-Kansas game, I think everyone comes ready to play.
“There’s going to be so much juice in the building. Roy is coming back. There’s going to be a lot of fans pumped up. We’ll be pumped up. We got that first one out of the way. We’re a little looser now. I think it will be a different attitude in the locker room before the game.”
The Jayhawks had better hope things are different during the game, too.
Kansas shot just 7.7 percent outside the paint Friday, becoming the first team since 2001 to win an NCAA tournament game without making a 3-pointer. The Jayhawks committed 17 turnovers and were outrebounded 41-35 overall and 18-4 on the offensive glass.
Western Kentucky outscored Kansas 17-5 on second-chance points. Hilltoppers coach Ray Harper said he couldn’t have been more proud of his players.
“The entire country got a glimpse of what they’re made of, their character and heart,” Harper said.
It would be foolish to say this game was close simply because Kansas played poorly or was ill-prepared, although those things certainly contributed.
The bigger story, though, was the moxie and grit displayed by the Hilltoppers, who hardly resembled a typical happy-to-be-there No. 16 seed, awed and overwhelmed by the hoopla surrounding March Madness.
Western Kentucky -- which was making its second consecutive tournament appearance and played in the Sweet 16 in 2008 -- entered the tournament with a 20-15 record overall and a 10-10 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. It would’ve had no chance of making the NCAA tournament if it hadn’t received an automatic bid by winning its league tournament nearly two weeks ago.
The Hilltoppers are ranked No. 150 in the RPI, which makes them far from the worst team KU has played this season. TCU, for example, is No. 238.
Harper’s players were the aggressors for most of Friday’s game. WKU probably could have won had it not shot 20.5 percent after intermission. Some of that was because of KU’s defense, but the Hilltoppers also missed some wide-open shots.
“We also made one shot for the game outside of two feet -- one,” Self said. “And that was by our 7-footer (Jeff Withey). So we didn’t exactly light it up, either.”
Kansas trailed 31-30 at halftime before battling back in the final stanza. A pivotal moment occurred when Jayhawks forward Kevin Young missed a 16-foot jumper with just under 18 minutes remaining. Young grabbed his own rebound near the free throw line and drove in for a two-handed reverse slam that ignited a nervous crowd of more than 18,000 mainly Kansas fans.
The Sprint Center was deafening the rest of the way, which was important on a night like Friday, when KU (30-5) needed all the help it could get.
“Sometimes playing at home, I think, puts more pressure on you in certain ways,” Self said. “We didn’t respond very well to the advantages we had.”
One Jayhawk who definitely came ready to play Friday was Withey, who finished with 17 points, 7 blocks and 6 rebounds. Withey scored five points during an 8-1 Kansas run that extended a 45-41 lead to 53-42 with just under three minutes remaining. Five of Withey’s blocks came in the second half.
Western Kentucky kept fighting and pulled within four points on a Brandon Harris 3-pointer that made is 59-55 with 28 ticks remaining. Kansas, though, made five straight free throws to seal the victory.
“We didn’t play our best by any stretch,” Self said. “But give Western credit. I thought they were the most aggressive team. I thought they controlled the game for the most part until the second half, when we got the ball inside some.
“We’re happy to advance, but certainly not pleased with how we played. Certainly we know we’ll have to play a lot better on Sunday.”