LAWRENCE — Even throughout an unexpectedly tense opening period, there was little doubt Kansas would ultimately simply out-talent its overmatched Division II foe en route to a 48th straight exhibition victory inside Allen Fieldhouse.
If nothing else, though, Tuesday’s first half proved the No. 4-ranked Jayhawks are far from a finished product.
KU ended up comfortably defeating in-state opponent Fort Hays State, 86-57, but did so in spite of a lethargic first half in which the Jayhawks committed seven turnovers, shot 26.7 percent from 3-point range and only out-rebounded the undersized Tigers by two (18-16).
Unlike last week’s exhibition opponent Pittsburg State, which KU put away early with 21- and 22-point runs en route to a 46-point victory, FHSU didn’t roll over — and even managed to go punch-for-punch with the Jayhawks in the first half.
The Tigers took their first lead, 17-16, on a 3-pointer by Hadley Gillum that was set up by an illegal screen call against Udoka Azubuike on the other end. It was the first of 10 lead changes in the opening 20 minutes, a stretch that included back-to-back deep 3-pointers by the aptly-named Trey O’Neil to give FHSU a 29-28 edge with 4:01 left.
A Frank Mason-esque driving layup and ensuing free-throw conversion by Devonte’ Graham gave KU a 36-33 advantage with 1:43 left in the half, and the Jayhawks would not surrender the lead the rest of the way thanks to a much cleaner second-half effort.
Sporting a 12-point lead with just over 11 minutes to play, the Jayhawks tore off a 15-0 run that was started with a 3-pointer by Graham and capped with back-to-back treys from the senior guard that gave KU a 71-44 edge with six minutes left.
Graham finished with 16 second-half points on 5-for-6 shooting, part of a game-high 27-point, eight-rebound effort. He also had six made 3-pointers in the contest, which saw the Jayhawks shoot 54.5 percent and out-rebound the Tigers by 14 in the second half. Azubuike had a game-high nine boards for KU, while Svi Mykhailiuk finished with eight points and eight rebounds.
Still, it was clear KU coach Bill Self was far from satisfied, even in the improved second half.
Self went to sparingly-used walk-on Clay Young far earlier than anyone anticipated — KU had a 10-point lead with 15:44 to play when the senior checked in. Late in the game, Self used an unconventional lineup featuring all three of the team’s frontcourt players — Azubuike, Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot — at the same time, albeit for only 51 seconds.
KU begins its regular season with an 8 p.m. Friday matchup with Tennessee State in Allen Fieldhouse.