Kansas escapes Western Kentucky
by Steve Wieberg, Special to USA TODAY Sports
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Twenty-nine years. One hundred sixteen tries. And still, a 16th seed hasn’t been able to take down a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament.
Seven-footer Jeff Withey lifted the Jayhawks from the crosshairs Friday night, piling up 17 points, six rebounds and seven blocks in a breathless 64-57 victory over Western Kentucky that epitomized this parity-dominated season.
The Hilltoppers led into the second half. Only grudgingly did they then give ground, falling behind by as many as 11 points, then clawing back within striking distance of the Big 12 Conference champion.
But first, Withey held them off. And Naadir Tharpe, Ben McLemore, then Tharpe again hit six free throws without a miss in the final 50 seconds to finish them off.
Withey collected five of his blocked shots in the second half. He scored seven of his points in a critical five-plus-minute stretch midway through the half in which Kansas — the top seed in the tournament’s South Regional — stretched a tenuous four-point lead to 10, then 11 with 3:08 left.
“He’s a second-team All-American for a reason,” Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper said.
It capped a wholly memorable day in Kansas City. Two other double-digit seeds — No. 12 Mississippi and No. 13 La Salle — advanced in the West Regional with wins over Wisconsin and Kansas State, respectively.
Western Kentucky hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent in more than three years and, in 22 previous NCAA appearances, had gone 0-for-4 against No. 1 seeds. In Kansas, however, the Sun Belt champion Hilltoppers went against a Goliath with a troubled tournament past.
It was Kansas that fell to 14th-seeded Bucknell in the first round in 2005, to 13th-seeded Bradley a year later, to ninth-seeded Northern Iowa — when the Jayhawks were No. 1 — in the second round in 2010, to streaking 11th-seeded VCU in the 2011 Southwest Regional final in San Antonio.
Kansas was playing Friday just 20 minutes from its campus, in front of a blue-hued crowd of 18,488 in Kansas City’s Sprint Center, but coach Bill Self suggested afterward that may have worked against the Jayhawks.
“There was a little bit … [For more on No. 1 Kansas escapes Western Kentucky's upset bid, click here.]