Kevin McCullar Jr. pushes Kansas past UConn in epic thriller

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It’s been the biggest question surrounding the Kansas Jayhawks early this season: Where is the perimeter shooting going to come from? 

Staring at a five-point deficit inside Allen Fieldhouse on Friday night, with UConn’s Tristen Newton posting the best scoring performance of his time as a Husky with 31 points, the Jayhawks needed someone to step up. 

Their breakout candidate, fifth-year senior Kevin McCullar Jr., rose to the occasion. With less than seven minutes to go, the 6-foot-7 wing drilled a go-ahead triple to give the Jayhawks the lead back. Off a turnover by Hassan Diarra, McCullar hit another trey that was part of a 14-2 run that spanned five minutes of game time. With just over a minute left in the game, McCullar delivered another 3 with ice water in his veins from deep in the corner, which ultimately helped Kansas secure a 69-65 victory over the reigning national champions. 

With the win, Kansas improved to a staggering 10-1 in top-five games at Allen Fieldhouse since Bill Self took over the Jayhawks. KU is also 19-4 against top-10 teams at home in that span.

Here are three takeaways from an absolute thriller of a game between the last two national champions.

1. Outside of Tristen Newton, Kansas frustrated UConn defensively

The Jayhawks built a 12-point lead in the first half and had a seven-point advantage at halftime because their defense ramped up and held Alex Karaban and Cam Spencer to a combined 6-for-23 from the floor. 

The Huskies’ formula to winning it all last year was through their depth, but on Friday night, Newton scored close to half of UConn’s points. Karaban, who fouled out, was unusually quiet, while Donovan Clingan only went 3-for-8 from the floor. That’s because Hunter Dickinson, KJ Adams, McCullar and others locked down on UConn’s offense for a good portion of the game. When Newton got cooking in the second half, there was nothing KU could do, but down the stretch on Friday, the Jayhawks did enough defensively to get some key stops and get a grasp on the game again. 

 2. The Jayhawks’ frontcourt deserves a heap of credit for this win 

I don’t think this Kansas team can win a national championship because their backcourt inconsistencies do concern me when it comes to being able to win six consecutive games in March. However, if this team does go on a major run, it will be because of its size. DaJuan Harris only shot 1-for-7 on Friday. Johnny Furphy did connect on two 3s, which was a welcome sight for the freshman. 

But, Dickinson, McCullar and Adams more than made up for the guard play. Dickinson’s 3-point game has really evolved under Self. He is now 13-of-17 from 3-point territory following a 3-for-4 performance on Friday. McCullar’s performance is nothing new. He’s totaled 20-plus points in four of the Jayhawks’ eight games this year, going from a guy who totaled around 10 per contest last year to over 18 per game thus far against a tough slate this season. 

But the X-factor in this game was Adams. The junior forward, who recently lost his mother to cancer, has had a hard start to this season.

On Friday night, Adams played his heart out with a season-high 18 points, as well as five rebounds, two assists and two blocks. He guarded Karaban at a high level and capitalized when he was in good situations to score the ball. Kansas needed someone to step up alongside Dickinson and McCullar, and on a night where a streaky shooter in Harris was off, Adams really served in a key role and iced the game with two free throws in the final seconds. 

3. Can these two teams play more often? 

Kansas and UConn have only met four times since 1995, with the Jayhawks taking every meeting. First and foremost, kudos to the Big 12 and Big East for getting this game as part of their conference challenge.

Friday night’s game showed why these two teams entered the contest ranked in the top-five in the country. UConn will be OK, and it bears noting, the Huskies were still without Stephon Castle (knee), who could make a return next week when the Huskies face North Carolina in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday. 

Newton earned the respect of the country, although if you read our list of the top 25 players in the sport that have impressed in the first month, you already knew that.

Needless to say, we need more UConn-Kansas games. These two blue bloods have to square off more, as it would be great for the sport with a pair of big-name coaches as well in Self and Hurley, who have carved out their roles as faces of the game in a day and age where a lot of the coaching greats have moved on. 

If the Big East and Big 12 need a suggestion for their conference challenge next year, or even if they don’t, it’s quite simple: Schedule a rematch of this game in Storrs! 

It was great for college basketball, and delivered the goods with two teams showing why they could make magic happen again this March. 

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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