LAWRENCE, Kan. -- — Perhaps fifth-ranked Kansas was feeling a little bit jet-lagged. Or wished it was still in paradise.
Maybe the Jayhawks were looking ahead to a showdown with fourth-ranked UConn.
Whatever the reason, the team picked by many to contend for the NCAA title found itself in a one-point game with Eastern Illinois in the closing minutes Tuesday night. It took some big plays by Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr. down the stretch, and some crucial plays at the defensive end, for the Jayhawks to escape with a 71-63 victory.
“I do not think ‘trap game’ is fair, because that's not giving Eastern Illinois enough credit for playing well, but it was not the ideal game to play in the moment we played it," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “I knew going into the game that his game was going to be a harder game than people thought.”
Dickinson finished with 25 points and 13 rebounds, and McCullar overcame a tough shooting night to score 18, but they got little help. The Jayhawks (6-1) were outrebounded by the Panthers and were just 9 of 22 from the 3-point line in their first game back from the Maui Invitational — and with the defending champion Huskies due in Allen Fieldhouse on Friday night.
“The matchup Friday is going to be a big one,” McCullar admitted. “We're going to learn from this.”
“They’re smart, they know what they are doing, and we just didn’t have an answer for it,” Eastern Illinois coach Marty Simmons said.
The Jayhawks lost for the first time this season last week in Maui, when No. 3 Marquette controlled them most of the way in the semifinals, but they bounced back to beat No. 10 Tennessee in the third-place game.
They looked jetlagged against the Panthers on Tuesday night.
Eastern Illinois, which played Division III Eureka College its last time out, held the mighty Jayhawks to just one field goal over a five-minute stretch of the first half. The Panthers were still within 38-25 at halftime, thanks in part to Shelton's buzzer-beating 3-pointer, then used a 15-4 run out of the locker room to get within 42-40 with 15 minutes to go.
“They got a couple easy ones and the basket started getting bigger for them,” said Dickinson, who had 18 of the Jayhawks' first 46 points. “We just did a bad job of letting them get comfortable out there.”
Every time Kansas tried to get the home crowd into it, Eastern Illinois answered, and the Panthers surely began thinking about their first win over a Top 25 foe in 24 tries when they closed to within 59-58 five minutes left in the game.
Dickinson came to the rescue again, scoring in the post a few minutes later to make it 66-61. And after the teams traded empty possessions, Dajuan Harris Jr. got a steal, threw ahead to McCullar and his dunk essentially put the game away.
“What it gave us was a win,” Self said, when asked what his team gained from Tuesday night. “And it gave us a chance to stress and sweat, which is going to happen a ton this year. So it was probably good in that regard.”
Eastern Illinois will have another chance to knock off a Big 12 foe when it plays Iowa State in late December.
Kansas had not played in Allen Fieldhouse since beating Manhattan on Nov. 10. Now, the Jayhawks won't leave until they visit Indiana on Dec. 16. Along with UConn, they have games coming up against Kansas City and bitter rival Missouri.
Eastern Illinois plays University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy, an NAIA school, on Saturday.
Kansas welcomes the Huskies on Friday night.
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- Mike Roberts
- Amy Bonner
- Doug Sirmons