KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jeff Withey scored 17 points and top-seeded Kansas struggled to put away scrappy Western Kentucky in a 64-57 victory Friday night that avoided what would have been the biggest upset on a day full of them in the NCAA tournament.
The Jayhawks (30-5), flummoxed by the Hilltoppers’ full-court pressure, trailed 31-30 at halftime. Kansas eventually built an 11-point lead in the second half, but couldn’t put Western Kentucky away until Ben McLemore’s two foul shots with 11 seconds left in the game.
McLemore and Travis Releford scored 11 each for the Jayhawks (30-5), who wearily advanced to play No. 8 seed North Carolina and former coach Roy Williams in the South Regional on Sunday.
Jamal Crook scored 13 points and T.J. Price had 12 for the Hilltoppers (20-16), who would have made history by becoming the first No. 16 seed to upend a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Earlier in the day, No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast stunned second-seeded Georgetown, perhaps emboldening the Sun Belt champions. And on the same floor at the Sprint Center, 13th-seeded La Salle knocked off Kansas State and No. 12 seed Ole Miss beat fifth-seeded Wisconsin.
Alas, the undersized team in red couldn’t hang tough with the bigger blue bloods down the stretch, allowing Kansas to reach 30 wins for the fourth straight season — the first time that’s happened in Division I men’s basketball, after Memphis was forced to vacate the 2008 season.
The Jayhawks also improved to 7-0 at the Sprint Center this season.
Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 16 seeds are winless against No. 1 seeds in 116 games, including Southern’s heartbreaking 64-58 loss to Gonzaga on Thursday.
Western Kentucky, though, spent the first half pinning Kansas against the ropes.
Price hit an opener 3-pointer in the opening minute, George Fant was able to use his superior quickness against the bigger Withey in the paint, and the Hilltoppers — who needed four wins to capture the Sun Belt tournament title and the league’s automatic bid — slowly built a 20-16 lead.
The heavily pro-Kansas crowd fell quiet, even as Jayhawks coach Bill Self turned up the volume on the sideline, laying into his team for its lethargic start.
Kansas finally pulled ahead for the first time since midway through the first half when Elijah Johnson finished off a three-point play that made it 28-27 with 90 seconds left, but a pair of baskets by Price down the stretch gave the scrappy Hilltoppers a 31-30 lead at the break.
The Jayhawks seized the lead again early in the second half when Kevin Young followed up his own miss by grabbing the rebound and throwing down a reverse jam, and then Releford scored off a nifty feed from McLemore, forcing Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper to burn a timeout.
Fant and Aleksejs Rostov both picked up their fourth fouls midway through the half, taking seats next to Harper on the Western Kentucky bench. But the longtime Division II and NAIA coach couldn’t keep his hottest hands there for long, and decided to gamble by putting them back in.
Farmer rolled snake eyes when Fant fouled out with 5:37 remaining.
Withey made one of two free throws, McLemore drove untouched down the lane for an easy basket, and Withey scored on a nifty move in the post to push the Jayhawks to a 52-42 lead — their biggest of the game — and force Farmer to call another timeout with 3:44 left on the clock.
Western Kentucky started whittling into the lead in the closing minutes, and a 3-pointer by Crook made it 59-55 with 25.4 seconds left on the clock.
But the Jayhawks got the ball in the hands of Naadir Tharpe, and he made two free throws to provide them a cushion. Price misfired from beyond the arc, and Brandon Harris was long on another 3-pointer from the corner, as McLemore added two more foul shots to seal the Jayhawks’ victory.
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