Saturday night marked a historic night for Kansas, but not necessarily in the most positive of ways.
Despite pulling off an 83-79 victory over No. 8-seeded Seton Hall, the Jayhawks allowed senior center Angel Delgado to set a rebounding record against the program, as his 23 rebounds marked the most by a player against a Kansas team in the NCAA tournament.
“I thought he was obviously the best player in the game,” said Kansas Head Coach Bill Self. “Carrington was good, too, but [Delgado] was a man.”
The first four minutes of the game seemed to be Delgado’s show, as within the first few possessions he collected two offensive boards over Mitch Lightfoot and four of the Pirates’ early points. Kansas was struggling early to account for the 6’10” presence, so only four minutes into the contest, Self turned to his wild card: an 80% healthy, bionic-aided big man in Udoka Azubuike.
Sporting the knee brace that has stabilized Azubuike since his MCL sprain, the Nigerian nightmare was quick to impact the game, but more importantly, seemed to find a rhythm right away and play like his usual self.
“I knew coming into the game [that] my team needed me,” said Azubuike. “As soon as I stepped on the court, I knew I was just good to go.”
The reliable big man wasn’t just good, but was the driving force behind the Jayhawks’ ability to repeatedly snuff out any comeback attempts from Seton Hall.
“In my opinion he was the most valuable player,” said Self. “If his mind wasn’t so right to get healthy that fast, there’s no way we would have won that game.”
Despite playing only 22 minutes, Azubuike played a much larger role than perhaps was initially anticipated and didn’t seem to miss a beat en route to a 10-point, seven rebound performance. Several times while in, Azubuike landed awkwardly on his injured left leg but it did not seem to bother him at all, a positive sign for his health and KU’s aspirations to continue their run in the NCAA tournament.
“I was so positive in my rehab, it didn’t take me much to just get back out there and get in playing form,” said Azubuike. “I had the mindset from the beginning, I’m going to get in and do anything that I can to help us win.”
Azubuike was a force up front, but he and the rest of the Jayhawks also got a lot of clutch plays from guard Malik Newman, who seemed to be back in form to the effort fans saw from him in the Big 12 Tournament, an effort that won him Most Outstanding Player. Newman finished with 28 points, including a perfect 8-for-8 in free throws in the last few minutes of the game, and ultimately fed senior Svi Mykhailiuk for an open three-pointer on one of KU’s final possessions to bury the Pirates for good. The dagger advanced Kansas to its 31st Sweet Sixteen in program history.
“When you’re young and sitting in front of the TV and watch all the games in March…this is your dream, going to the Sweet Sixteen,” said Newman. “I’m proud of this team, I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of this coaching staff, everyone that had a hand in it.”
Newman and the Jayhawks continue their March run next weekend in Omaha in the Sweet Sixteen.