WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Udoka Azubuike had practiced once in the last 11 days because of a lingering knee injury, and the mammoth Kansas forward’s three-minute stretch in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament was about as underwhelming as his herky-jerky free-throw stroke.
He managed to go 22 minutes against Seton Hall on Saturday night.
The Jayhawks needed all of them.
Azubuike stood toe-to-toe with the Pirates’ bruising Angel Delgado, and he drew enough attention on offense to spring his high-scoring guards for open looks. The result was a 28-point performance from teammate Malik Newman, 16 more from Svi Mykhailiuk, and a gritty 83-79 victory that pushed the top-seeded Jayhawks to their third consecutive Sweet 16.
“If ‘Doke wasn’t able to come back from his injury, we don’t win,” coach Bill Self said. “I was hoping for 20 minutes. That was what I was hoping. And he could have played more.”
Lagerald Vick added 13 points for Kansas (29-7), which converted every crucial play down the stretch to advance to the semifinals of the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks will face the winner of Sunday night’s game between Auburn and Clemson next week in Omaha, Nebraska.
Delgado finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds in a virtuoso effort for the No. 8 seed Pirates (22-11), who snapped a four-game NCAA Tournament skid in the opening round. But he was less effective when Azubuike was in the game, a matchup that often sounded like battleships colliding.
“It stinks, basically, to leave like this,” Delgado said, “because we had so much expectation. We wanted to win every game, be the best team in the tournament.”
Khadeen Carrington finished with 28 points, many of them on 3-pointers in the closing minutes, and Myles Powell added 14 as the pair of guards tried in vain to keep Seton Hall alive.
It was 71-66 with 53 seconds left when Devonte Graham made two free throws for Kansas. Carrington kept answering for the Pirates, but the Jayhawks were unflappable at the foul line.
“I think it was the four-minute timeout, Coach told us in the huddle we were in the bonus. Just get down there, keep getting fouls,” said Newman, the MVP of last week’s Big 12 Tournament. “I was able to hit them quick and I was able to get to the line and make my free throws.”
Kansas led just 31-26 at halftime, when Delgado had already piled up 12 points and 12 rebounds, and was forced to make some significant adjustments in the locker room.
On defense, Self called for double-teams on Delgado whenever he got the ball down low, especially when Azubuike was sitting on the bench. On offense, he had his guys throw it to Azubuike on the block or rely on Mykhailiuk — by nature a 3-point specialist — to slash to the basket.
Together, they helped the Jayhawks stretch their lead to double digits.
Delgado kept the Pirates in the game, though. Azubuike went to the bench with four fouls with about 9 minutes left, and coach Kevin Willard instructed his own guys to go right back to their center.
Delgado was so effective that Self gambled by putting ‘Doke right back in the game.
“He was the best player in the game,” Self said. “He was a man. We knew he was good. And not having Doke in there more hurt us, because physically he was able to get the best of us.”
Seton Hall closed to 63-59 with 3:22 to go, but Newman answered with a 3-pointer and a pair of foul shots, and the poised Jayhawks never allowed the Pirates to come all the way back.
“I thought it was an extremely well-played game,” Willard said. “I thought the kids left everything on the floor for both teams. I’m proud of the way my guys kept fighting back. You just have to give Kansas credit. They made a lot of big shots late.”
Self improved to 35-13 in the NCAA Tournament with Kansas, highlighted by a national title in 2008. That breaks a tie with his predecessor and current North Carolina coach Roy Williams for the most tourney wins in school history. Williams was 34-14 with the Jayhawks.
Seton Hall was often rattled by a crowd that gave Kansas a hometown advantage. The game was played about 2 hours south of the Jayhawks’ campus in Lawrence, and about 90 percent of the 15,000-plus at Intrust Bank Arena cheered on the home-state school.
Kansas survived without much production from Graham, who scored 29 against Pennsylvania in the first round. He took a wicked shot to the head from a teammate late in the first half, and wound up with eight points on 1-for-7 shooting.
The Jayhawks are headed to Omaha for the regional semifinals. They’ll play the winner of Sunday night’s matchup between fourth-seeded Auburn and No. 5 seed Clemson.
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