LAWRENCE — Maybe it wasn’t a Sprint Center thing after all.
The No. 2-ranked Kansas basketball team dropped its second game in the last five days and suffered only the 11th defeat at Allen Fieldhouse in head coach Bill Self’s 15-plus-year tenure, losing 95-85 on Sunday afternoon to No. 16 Arizona State. The Sun Devils overwhelmed the Jayhawks in the game’s final 15 minutes, turning a two-point KU advantage into the double-digit defeat for the Jayhawks.
Self, who earlier in the week lamented the team’s lack of a dog-like mentality in the absence of former standouts Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, again identified the lack of toughness as the biggest culprit for the Jayhawks’ second consecutive defeat as a double-digit favorite against a Pac-12 foe.
“This is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here,” Self said. “A lot of that is experience. A lot of that is youth. A lot of it is just the way that we’re physically built and the way our skillset is. But the bottom line is we’ve got to become tougher on that (defensive) end.”
Tra Holder had a game-high 29 points for the Sun Devils, who shot 50.8 percent from the field and 57.6 percent in the second half. Holder, Shannon Evans (22 points) and Remy Martin (21) — all guards and none listed as taller than 6-foot-1 — accounted for 75.8 percent of ASU’s scoring.
“I mean, that’s ridiculous to allow them to have that output,” Self said of the trio’s success, particularly at the rim and in the lane. “… When I say soft, I throw that term around a lot, but I don’t know how else you could describe the last four halves we’ve played if you don’t say that.”
Lagerald Vick’s 25 points on 11-for-25 shooting paced the Jayhawks, who had 16 turnovers and were buried by an 18-2 run that started five minutes into the second half.
The teams traded blows until a Vick driving layup put KU ahead, 52-50, with 15:12 to play. It would be the Jayhawks’ last lead, as the bucket represented the final one for KU ahead of the ghastly, turnover-plagued 18-2 stretch which concluded with the Sun Devils in front, 65-52, with just over 10 minutes to play.
The Jayhawks (7-2), who surrendered 25 points on their 16 turnovers, could never quite recover.
“Basically they were better with the ball — which they’ve been with everybody they’ve played. They put it on Xavier pretty good, too,” Self said of the ASU guards. “They’re good, and they were better with the ball than we were, obviously, physically being able to stay in front of them.”
An and-1 layup and converted free throw from Romello White gave ASU its first lead of the afternoon at 55-52 and prompted a spinning first pump from Holder. A layup from Holder after a Svi Mykhailiuk turnover — one of three giveaways from the senior guard in the lopsided run — extended the lead, and a Martin fastbreak layup on another Mykhailiuk turnover made the ASU advantage 59-52.
“Turnovers always critical, because it led to easy baskets that they didn’t really have to work for,” said KU senior guard Devonte’ Graham, who finished with 19 points, eight assists and two turnovers. “We don’t ever like to turn the ball over.”
Another Martin layup capped the 18-2 stretch and forced a KU timeout with 10:24 to play. Vick mercifully ended the run with a layup, but an out-of-control driving layup on the other end by Martin and a converted free throw made the deficit 14.
Back-to-back 3-point makes by Mykhailiuk cut the hole to six, 78-72, and gave KU hope with 5:20 to play. But an ill-advised and overthrown full-court pass from Malik Newman after a defensive rebound had Graham scrambling just to throw it backward at the baseline and eventually resulted in a turnover.
It was a “terrible, bonehead” turnover at a key moment, said Self, who buried his head in his palm for several seconds after the play. Graham, Newman’s target, said it would’ve been a good pass if Newman hadn’t put so much under it, but still cited it as another pivotal turnover in a game with many.
“It was critical turnovers right when we had the momentum going a couple times,” Graham said. “It just kind of killed the momentum, and then they would come down and hit another 3 or get an and-1 or something like that. It kind of deflates that momentum.”
Martin’s layup on the other end and a 3-point make from Evans swelled the Sun Devil advantage to 11 again with 4:04 left, and a trey by Kodi Justice — one of 14 made 3s on the afternoon for the Sun Devils (9-0) — made the contest 89-78 with 2:27 to play, perhaps a hole too deep for even “Allen Fieldhouse magic” to overcome.
Mykhailiuk (14 points), Azubuike (13) and Newman (13, left with a concussion) rounded out the double-digit scorers for KU, which itself made 14 3-pointers and shot 47.8 percent from the field, buoyed by a 5-for-5 shooting start that gave the Jayhawks a 15-2 advantage.
“I think that we actually had the right attitude,” Self said of KU’s fast start. “I thought we were really good, probably the best we’ve played all year the first three, four minutes. But that doesn’t matter. It’s a 40-minute game.”
Near the end, with the Sun Devils putting the finishing touches on the 58-point half, a light “A-S-U” chant broke out from the corners of the 63-year-old arena, heard loudly over the otherwise deafening silence. Well after the game ended, Sun Devil fans gathered around the team’s bench and led chants of “Tra Holder” and “A-S-U” that echoed throughout the facility. ASU players gave coach Bobby Hurley a Gatorade bath in a raucous postgame locker room.
The defeat was KU’s second this week, with the then-22-point favorite Jayhawks losing to unranked Washington, 74-65, on Wednesday at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. It also represented Self’s first defeat at Allen Fieldhouse since last season’s 92-89 overtime loss to Iowa State on Feb. 4.
“I think most of it is mental toughness, yeah, yeah. Most of it is mental toughness,” Self said of the two-game skid. “I just don’t feel it right now. And obviously Doke is young and Mitch (Lightfoot) hasn’t ever played and we’re counting on some guys to play that have never played before, but still, even with that being said there’s not that dog or competitive juice that guys need to have when the game’s on the line.”
KU continues its nonconference schedule with a 7 p.m. Saturday contest against former Big 12 rival Nebraska in Lincoln. The Jayhawks won last year’s matchup between the programs at Allen Fieldhouse, 89-72.
While the six-day break coincides with final exams, Self is hopeful he’ll see a more disciplined and focused team when the Jayhawks take on the Huskers and perhaps build from there.
“Obviously we need to get better,” Self said, “but beginning after finals week is over, that’s when I hope we can really hunker down and do some things to improve.”