By Austin Lawton | @AJLawton1
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO – The last remaining No. 1 seed in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Kansas Jayhawks, managed to hold on Friday night while becoming the winningest program in men’s college basketball history.
Kansas defeated fourth-seeded Providence, 66-61, to reach its first Elite Eight since 2017 and the 23rd overall, third-most according to the NCAA. The Jayhawks (31-6) will play No. 10 Miami on Sunday with a chance to go to a 16th Final Four in its 50th tournament appearance.
With the win, number 2,354 for Kansas, the Jayhawks moved ahead of the University of Kentucky. The victory was bolstered by another impactful performance off of the bench from senior guard Remy Martin, who scored 23 points, 13 of which came in the first half, on 7-of-13 shooting with seven rebounds and three assists. A double-double by Jalen Wilson, who scored 16 points and 11 rebounds, added to the scoring display of Martin.
“I try to be the toughest guy on the court I can be. And also the toughest team on the court,” Wilson said. “We play with that mindset, and a chip on our shoulder and we can get through any situation like tonight.”
Kansas’ leading scorer, senior guard Ochai Agbaji, went quiet tonight, scoring a season-low five points, more than 14 beneath his average, on 2-of-8 shooting. In the three Kansas NCAA victories, Agbagi has made 12 of 36 field goal attempts (33.3%) and two of 12 3-point attempts (16.7%).
“We can look at it as a shooting slump,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “And I guess it is. But when you only take eight shots I don’t know if I ever consider that a slump. I know one thing — the lid will come off eventually. And when it does it will be good for KU people.
“But right now I think he’s doing enough stuff to help us win,” Self went on, “and we’ve had other guys step up. So we don’t put too much emphasis on that at all.”
A resilient Providence team came up just short in its comeback in the first meeting between the schools. The Friars (27-6) came within a point, 41-40, on back-to-back 3-point baskets in a 48-second span by graduate student Noah Horchler. Two free throws by senior guard A.J. Reeves with 7:17 left to play tied the game up at 44. Moments later, with an assist from Al Durham, Horchler scored to give Providence its first and only lead of the game with a score of 48-47 with 5:52 left. Providence would only lead for 28 seconds.
“I thought our men competed at an elite level,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley. “It was a great college basketball game. It’s tough. This is the most connected group I’ve ever been around. This was a special, special, special group. I thought we played our hardest right to the end. I thought we responded. And I couldn’t be more proud. I hurt for our seniors. I’m very sad for my seniors. But at the same time, I have an enormous amount of gratitude for the year that we’ve had. We can’t let this one loss define the special season that this special group had.”
Durham led Providence in scoring with 21 points on 8-of-18 shooting, with four assists and seven rebounds. Horchler contributed 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, with eight rebounds. Durham, having transferred from Indiana University, played in his first NCAA tournament in 2022.
“Man, this was a special group,” Durham said. “I feel like this one can’t be duplicated. But we were well-connected. We all loved each other. We all came together with one goal and that was to leave our mark. And this was one of the best groups I’ve ever been around.
“I’m indebted to Coach Cooley and Friartown and to all my teammates for welcoming me with open arms,” Durham went on. “I can’t even describe how grateful I am for all things that they did for me and turning my college career around a little bit.”
Providence set NCAA tournament school-record lows in shooting and scoring on Friday night. Providence made 33.8% of its shots, which surpassed the previous low of 33.9% against Dayton in 2015, and scored 17 first-half points, two fewer than the 19 the Friars scored against St. Joseph’s in 1966. Providence made 17.4% of its 3-point shots, lower than the previous mark of 21.4% against Penn State in 2001.
Kansas’ defense proved to be a standout, putting up 11 blocks, tying its season-high against Tarleton State on November 11. The Jayhawks held the lead for 35:48.
“We guarded today,” Self said. “We guarded. We had some breakdowns in the second half. I don’t know that you wouldn’t have breakdowns in the second half when you’re kind of on your heels when they’re coming back. We gave up 44 points in the second half. That’s way too many.
“But overall, I think it’s getting better. Our first-shot defense was pretty good. They hurt us on the glass a little bit in the first half. I think we’re more connected defensively than we’ve been all year.”
Kansas only made two of its 14 three-point attempts, setting a new season low. The previous season low was three in February against West Virginia.
“I think the first half was about as well we could guard,” Self said. “So I told the guys at halftime, when the other team shoots it like they shot it and how we guard them only to be up nine, that’s not a great sign. But we made them play poor. They made us play poor. But when the other team can’t score, you’re not going to lose very often. And even though we didn’t guard them great the second half, I think the totality of the game certainly, that played to our favor.”