KU didn’t dwell on 3-game skid. Players wanted to beat a blue blood: ‘It’s Kentucky’

James Crisp/AP

Kansas men’s basketball players were well aware a loss to fellow blue-blood Kentucky on Saturday night in the Big 12/SEC Challenge would force the first four-game losing streak in the 20-year Bill Self era.

“We talked about it every day,” KU point guard Dajuan Harris said after busting a recent slump by hitting two threes and scoring eight points with eight assists against Kentucky.

The Jayhawks won 77-68 in front of 20,418 fans at Rupp Arena.

“We needed to win to get confidence, (but) it’s Kentucky, too,” Harris added of the significance of beating a team that now trails KU by seven games on college basketball’s all-time victory list.

KU junior forward Jalen Wilson — he was sensational in scoring 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting with eight rebounds — said of course the Jayhawks wanted to avoid the program’s first four-game losing streak since the 1988-89 season, but just as importantly, KU wanted to defeat a Kentucky team that clobbered KU by 18 points in Lawrence last season.

“I don’t think we came in thinking like that,” Wilson said of possibly dwelling on losses to Kansas State, TCU and Baylor. “Every single game we played was a tough game against a really tough team like tonight. We were focused on what we had in front of us. We had three tough losses but came in with a great mindset, positive vibes, positive energy, not worrying about anything but winning the game.

“Winning any time on a stage like this, two historical programs (that rank) one-two in wins all-time, there’s a lot of pride on the line.”

Wilson’s three with 11:31 left in the second half upped a one-point lead to 54-50, coming at a time Kentucky threatened to completely erase its game-high deficit of nine points.

“This game means a lot to a lot of people,” Wilson said. “It’s good to get our train rolling again. We have a big game Tuesday (at home against Kansas State). This should help our confidence.”

Wilson also cashed a three to give KU a 70-64 lead at 4:11 and a deep two to give KU a 75-68 margin at 1:49.

“Our starting five did great. I thought Jalen played like a first-team All-American down the stretch,” Self said. “If you could have all five starters play well the same night you’ve got a chance. I think that’s what happened tonight.”

Self said he thought KU’s Harris “controlled the game.” He also lauded Kevin McCullar (11 points, 12 rebounds) for coming back from an ankle sprain he suffered the second half by hitting a three with 3:09 left to give KU a 73-66 lead, which Self said may have been the biggest shot of the game.

Additionally, Self praised KJ Adams for his 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting and work on big man Oscar Tshiebwe, who scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds. He also highlighted Gradey Dick’s effort. The freshman had 13 points, five rebounds and two steals.

The Adams-led Jayhawks outrebounded Kentucky 34-29 and held the Wildcats to zero second-chance points to KU’s 11.

KU’s Ernest Udeh and Zuby Ejiofor also helped out on the glass and guarding Tshiebwe. Udeh had four points, two rebounds in 12 minutes. Ejiofor, who sprained his ankle and wore a boot after the game (Self said he did not know his availability for Tuesday) had two points and a rebound in four minutes.

“It was a huge emphasis. Having a huge presence in the paint like Oscar, it’s important to hit him first, not let him establish contact in the paint,” Wilson said. His 22 points give him 113 over a four-game span, most in a four-game stretch in the Self era. Andrew Wiggins had 112 over four games in 2013-14.

“It was one of the main keys in winning the game,” Wilson added of hitting the boards.

It helped that Kentucky went 2-of-13 from three (to KU’s 6-of-16). UK was 16-of-23 from the line to KU’s 9-of-10.

“I’ll be candid. We hoped to attack them in the pick and roll and were praying on the rebound stuff,” Self said with a smile. “We did a great job defensive rebounding. We hadn’t rebounded like that in a while.

“He (Tshiebwe) is so good, so big and active. We did a great job on the glass. We had to have scored at least 20 points off ball screens.”

Coach John Calipari noticed No. 9-ranked KU’s toughness in getting back on the right track and improving its record to 17-4. UK is 14-7.

“They were more physical than us. That was surprising. They fought like heck for rebounds,” Calipari said.

KU basketball injury report

Self said Ejiofor “turned his ankle and couldn’t return (to game).” Self didn’t know the freshman forward’s status for the game against K-State on Tuesday.

McCullar, on the other hand, said his injured ankle would not prevent him from playing Tuesday.

“I cut to the basket, tweaked my ankle a bit. We’ve got the best trainer. I’ll be good and ready,” McCullar said.

Self said he asked McCullar if he wanted to return to the game in the second half after hurting the ankle in the early going. McCullar answered, per Self: “Yeah, it’s already hurt. I might as well play.”

Continued the KU coach: He (McCullar) made up for others’ mistakes. He is so smart defensively. He hadn’t shot the ball great and made the biggest shot in the game probably. ... The way we were trying to trap the post if we hadn’t had Kevin, we’d have been dead.”