Big 12 tournament: Cincinnati and Kansas State keep March Madness hopes alive with wins

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With just under six minutes left in the second half, the Cincinnati defense sagged and swarmed Kansas freshman Johnny Furphy, snatching the ball from his fingertips. Day Day Thomas threw it ahead to John Newman III, who took one dribble before lofting it to Daniel Skillings Jr., the rangy Bearcats sophomore high-pointing the ball and flushing it through the hoop.

Timeout Kansas. The bucket punctuated a 10-2 run by Cincinnati, turning a nervy 6-point margin into a definitive lead and 72-52 victory, sending the injury-ravaged, short-handed Jayhawks on a brief bus ride home from the Big 12 tournament.

“We got a little tight, to be honest,” Cincinnati coach Wes Miller said. “Once we got aggressive and started playing like ourselves and getting out and running, I thought some good things started happening.”

The game followed a similarly critical win for Kansas State, which held on for a 78-74 victory over Texas. For a conference that expects to place nine teams in the NCAA Tournament field this Sunday, two schools outside of that group kept their March Madness hopes alive Wednesday evening.

The 10-seed Wildcats bum-rushed back from a 10-point halftime deficit to knock off 7-seed Texas, holding the Longhorns to 29 percent from the field in the second half while logging 26 of their 38 points in the paint. Senior guard Tylor Perry scored 21 points and junior forward Arthur Kaluma had 12 of his 14 after the break.

“I told the guys, the team that was beating us was in our locker room, it wasn’t the dudes on the other side. If we could get ourselves out of our own way, then we would have a chance in the second half,” Kansas State coach Jerome Tang said. “It helps when some shots go in, but I thought us living in the paint was the kind of grittiness I was looking for.”

The No. 11-seed Bearcats had a significant size and depth advantage over 6-seed Kansas in the nightcap. The Jayhawks were without first-team all-Big 12 standouts Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr., who averaged a combined 36.3 points and 16.8 rebounds during the regular season. Head coach Bill Self announced Monday that both would sit out this week to rest for the NCAA Tournament, and Cincinnati capitalized, outrebounding Kansas by 11 and focusing its defensive prep on Dajuan Harris Jr. (8 points, 3-11 FG) and KJ Adams Jr. (22 points, three turnovers).

“I knew we had to be a force on the glass,” Miller said. “Adams is so terrific. And you know he can make shots over the top, but we wanted to make him make them over the top, and we could live with that. Fortunately, he missed some, but our guys did a great job with the game plan.”

The Jayhawks’ season-long shooting woes continued, with Furphy scoring just 2 points on 1 of 8 field goals. Skillings led all scorers with 25 points, and Newman added 12 points and 10 boards.

It was Cincinnati’s second win in as many days, coming on the heels of a 90-85 win over West Virginia on Tuesday, with the Bearcats erasing a 16-point deficit in less than 12 minutes. It was the biggest comeback of Miller’s tenure at Cincinnati thanks to 31 points from Simas Lukosius and 29 from Thomas. Both players hit seven 3-pointers apiece, something Thomas hadn’t done since high school and Lukosius hadn’t done since youth club ball in Germany.

For two squads that struggled to stay on the bubble down the stretch of league play, the start of the tournament has offered Cincinnati and Kansas State the opportunity to overcome many of the flaws that plagued both sides to this point — finishing off comebacks, hitting open shots, executing game plans, not getting rattled in tight moments. Maintaining that momentum doesn’t get any easier on Thursday: Kansas State faces 2-seed Iowa State and Cincinnati faces 3-seed Baylor. But another win for either side would breathe serious life into their at-large prospects.

“I’m just happy we get a chance,” Tang said.

(Photo of Cincinnati’s Aziz Bandaogo dunking on Kansas: Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)

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