BROOKLYN — In the end, the conclusion of a long night said little about the journey. Kansas, faced with an overtime staredown against a tenacious Tennessee team and the No. 1 national ranking potentially in the balance, pulled away by force of depth and talent for a 87-81 title win in the NIT Tip-Off. The extra five minutes delivered the sort of outcome many projected on paper, only after the previous 40 said otherwise. It was late, it was dizzying and it was not the way anyone drew it up. These were still two Final Four-caliber teams with much to prove, in an entertaining deadlock that ebbed and flowed, swapped leads 12 times and came to a close shortly after midnight local time.
It was at least mildly ironic that the rockfight’s final, bloody segment was absent two heavy boulders. Tennessee’s Grant Williams fouled out with 1:24 in the second half, sending Charlie Moore to the line to tie the game at 69, where it would remain as both teams labored toward extra time. Chief among Williams’s responsibilities had been frustrating Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike, who picked up his final foul as Williams drew (and sold) contact under the basket with 4:26 left. The decisive moments unfolded sans two tone-setting, offensive focal points. A deeper Jayhawks team had more to gain in the end.
Friday night was a battle of attrition from the outset, tipping 45 minutes late after a Louisville-Marquette undercard went to an overtime of its own. Riding Dedric Lawson, who finished with 24 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, Kansas spread the floor and capitalized on late Tennessee mistakes to pull away. “It was a good, grind it out toughness win—not artistic at all, but certainly we need how to win that way,” said coach Bill Self, who suggested Wednesday that his young group needed a marquee game, perhaps more so than their experienced opponents. “This team’s never really done that.” Kansas came in at No. 2, Tennessee at No. 5, both undefeated, and Friday night stood as a litmus test.
Where Self commended his team’s show of mettle—a positive sign after laboring in the first half and an uneven win over Marquette in the previous game—Tennessee’s Rick Barnes was clinical in his postgame critique. He labeled the showing as “antsy and jumpy,” pointing to frustrating misses in execution from a veteran group and a refusal to attack the paint that led to a critical 34–17 split in free throw attempts. “Our guards were just shooting it,” Barnes lamented. The Volunteers made just 7-of-27 from outside, and lost their way when Williams exited and left only Admiral Schofield willing to carry the load.
Kansas had more to feel good about. The No. 1 ranking may still go to Gonzaga, who knocked off Duke in Maui earlier in the week, but the Jayhawks haven’t sniffed their ceiling, dealing with streaky play through five games, and with touted freshman Quentin Grimes laboring to make an impact. Friday’s game swung in full only after Azubuike left, and they were forced to funnel play through Lawson in smaller closing lineups that featured his younger brother K.J. (in the absence of Marcus Garrett) and Moore in lieu of Grimes. “I don’t really know what we have yet because it’s been a different guy almost every night,” Self admitted, citing his team’s competitive verve as recompense.
For a team with the Jayhawks’ cadre of impact players, winning ugly early only bodes well. Freshman Devon Dotson, who finished with 17 points, has been their barometer, and though it’s scary that he provides their only downhill element right now, when he’s aggressive, his speed alters the geometry of the floor and makes things go. Lagerald Vick, thus far resurgent in his return to the team, scored eight enormous points in a row in the second half, adding an element of destruction with his three-point stroke. After tonight, the book may be out on how to slow Azubuike—front him and force him to catch the ball as the Vols did, rather than let him use his considerable mass on the block—but having an interior playmaker like Lawson can cover for a whole lot of issues up front.
For Tennessee, what could have been a resounding affirmation of its legitimacy as a postseason threat can now be spun the opposite way. It was its toughness and physicality that nearly flipped enough margins to win the night, but its depth was exposed as its talismans, Williams (whose 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists came on an ostensible off night) and Schofield (who had 21 points but shot 9–22 from the field) each dealt with foul issues. Somehow, Tennessee scored zero fast break points. Due to their roster composition, the Volunteers tend to funnel offense through a narrow tree of scorers. Kansas effectively gameplanned for Williams, and limited Schofield to the perimeter. Tennessee has looked fully bought-in, is wired to overachieve and will wear most teams down with its intensity and approach, but it is still beatable on a bad night.
As Barnes more than drove home, overcoming elite competition will require additional poise. “They know exactly what they’re looking for, and they do it, and we haven’t gotten there yet,” he said of Kansas. He may have been underselling his charges, who fought up to expectations and came awfully close to proving something. The result was fun, but fleeting. And in the end, for better or worse, nobody mistook November for March.