McCullar scores 21 as No. 5 Kansas beats No. 4 UConn 69-65 in showdown of past 2 NCAA champions

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Kansas forward K.J. Adams Jr. dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against UConn Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Students began camping at Allen Fieldhouse more than two days early, and by Friday night the line for the rest of the fans to get into the historic building for this UConn-Kansas showdown snaked its way for what seemed like a mile.

The matchup between the past two national champions lived up to expectations.

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In a back-and-forth game that was part of the Big East-Big 12 Battle, the No. 5 Jayhawks allowed a big early advantage to slip away, then roared back down the stretch. Kevin McCullar Jr. buried back-to-back 3-pointers to give Kansas the lead again in the closing minutes, and KJ Adams Jr. made two free throws in the final seconds to hold off the fourth-ranked Huskies, 69-65.

“That's big-time college basketball,” said McCullar, who finished with 21 points. “We've been in these moments multiple times. We just wanted to stay composed. We knew they were going to make a run and the last few minutes, we made our push.”

Kansas (7-1) could have taken some of the drama out of the final minute, when the Huskies (7-1) were forced to foul, but Adams and Dajuan Harris Jr. were only able to make one of their four free throws, and that gave UConn a chance.

The defending NCAA champions raced down the floor and Cam Spencer got a good look at a potential go-ahead 3, but his shot came up short and Adams grabbed the rebound. He was fouled, and this time Adams — whose mother, Yvonne, died just two weeks ago — made both foul shots with 2.4 seconds left to clinch the win.

“He was playing for a lot more than Kansas tonight,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “I thought KJ was great.”

Hunter Dickinson had 15 points and nine rebounds, and Adams finished with 18 points to help the Jayhawks end the Huskies' 13-game win streak and their remarkable run of 24 consecutive nonconference victories by double digits — a Division I record.

Tristen Newton hit a career-high six 3s and scored 31 points for the Huskies, but got little help from the rest of their offense. Donovan Clingan, who banged with fellow 7-foot-2 center Dickinson all night, was held to eight points and seven boards.

“Just like Kansas, at UConn we don't do the moral victories or silver linings,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley said. “Tristen carried us tonight. That was a virtuoso performance. I thought the program and our guys showed a champion's heart by putting ourselves in position to have a 3 to steal it, and get out of here with a win.”

Rarely do blueblood programs play each other in nonconference games on campus these days, and that was a big reason for the fevered pitch before tipoff. Even noted Kansas fan Jason Sudeikis was in the stands.

Kansas raced to a 16-5 lead by the time the game was five minutes old, ratcheting up what already was a deafening roar inside the Phog. And every time the Huskies — or more accurately, Newton — made a 3-pointer to cut into the lead, the Jayhawks were able to get into transition against one of the nation's top scoring teams for another easy basket.

“I don't think the crowd really affected us,” Newton insisted afterward. “We just came out flat.”

Kansas had chances to deliver a knockout blow, leading by as many as 12 with the ball, but couldn't quite land it. Newton took advantage, scoring the final five points of the first half to trim the Jayhawks' lead to 38-31 at the break.

UConn kept coming, scoring the first five of the second half and setting up the heavyweight fight everyone expected.

The Huskies took their first lead when Newton beat the shot clock with a 3-pointer with 10 1/2 minutes to go, then he drilled another one on their next trip down the floor. Kansas answered when Adams got a floater to go in the lane, then McCullar hit his back-to-back 3s and Dickinson one of his own to give the Jayhawks a 61-54 lead with less than four minutes to go.

Alex Karaban gave the Huskies hope with a 3-pointer, only to foul out moments later. That forced him to watch, like more than 16,000 fans packed to the rafters, as two of college basketball's titans went shot-for-shot over the final couple of minutes.

“We'll get low after this one,” Hurley said. “We're not accustomed to losing where we have the program at. Our expectation of tonight's game — it was going to be really, really hard. There's not many teams in the country in this kind of showdown.”


UConn played again without five-star prospect Stephon Castle, who had missed the last five games with a knee injury but was hoping to be back for the Jayhawks. Then their backcourt took another hit when Spencer came up limping early, though he was able to return. He finished with six points on 2-for-12 shooting.


UConn plays No. 17 North Carolina on Tuesday night in New York.

Kansas plays Kansas City on Tuesday night.


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