David McCormack, KU basketball earn 'nonnegotiable' win over No. 23 Oklahoma State 78-66

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas basketball's David McCormack attempts a hook shot over Oklahoma State forward Kalib Boone during Monday's game at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. McCormack finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 78-66 victory over the No. 23 Cowboys.

LAWRENCE — Vanquished from the polls for the first time in nearly 12 years and staring down a possible fifth consecutive defeat to a ranked foe, Kansas basketball needed someone to put their foot down.

Stepping into that role Monday was the Jayhawks’ 6-foot-10, 250-pound starting forward, who is proving himself more than capable of giving an opponent the boot.

“We said,” explained David McCormack, “it was a nonnegotiable game.”

Indeed, the former McDonald’s All-American left no room for compromise.

McCormack scored 23 points, hauled in 10 rebounds and played spirited defense in the Jayhawks' 78-66 victory over No. 23 Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse, their first win over a ranked opponent since Dec. 22. KU fell out of both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls earlier Monday, two days after the team's 91-79 defeat at then-No. 17 West Virginia.

Asked whether that development served as motivation for the matchup with the Cowboys, McCormack responded: “Of course.”

“Not only is it a ranked team but we’re just happy to win in general,” said McCormack, whose Jayhawks (13-7, 7-5 Big 12) entered losers of six of their previous 11 contests. “Wins are always something to celebrate, so we’re happy that we did better on defense (than) before. We’re also happy that we really just locked down, we talked to each other, we communicated through problems and got through it.”

McCormack’s performance Monday was emblematic of his entire season, really.

The Jayhawks’ lone frontcourt starter struggled out of the gate, missing five layups in a 1-for-7 shooting performance across a first half that saw KU connect on just 32.3% of its field goal attempts. In fact, McCormack missed three layups in the game’s first 90 seconds and was replaced by Mitch Lightfoot less than four minutes into the contest.

McCormack had two points at halftime, where the Jayhawks clung to a 28-25 lead.

“Have to have a short-term memory as an athlete, honestly,” McCormack said. “Take what you can from the first half (and) apply it to the second half. I had nothing but encouragement and positivity from my teammates and coaching staff (at halftime). I just applied all that forward and came out great.”

That’s an understatement.

McCormack converted a jumper through contact and subsequent free-throw attempt on KU's first possession after the break — he said head coach Bill Self drew up a play that would get the forward an early touch, which McCormack said helped with his confidence — and it was off to the races. McCormack scored nine points in the first five minutes of the period to help the Jayhawks build a nine-point lead with 15:18 remaining.

The Cowboys (12-6, 5-6) stuck around, though, with Isaac Likekele’s layup bringing the visitors within five, 56-51, with 6:41 left. But McCormack responded with a layup, and after a free throw by OSU’s Rondel Walker, McCormack found Jalen Wilson wide open in the paint on a nifty high-low pass for another layup and an eight-point advantage.

McCormack finished with three assists, a number that would've been even higher had his teammates done better than 5 for 15 collectively from 3-point range. Senior point guard Marcus Garrett said he’s seen McCormack's passing improve "a lot" this season.

“When David gets in a groove, like he says, everything kind of slows down for him,” Garrett said. “That’s kind of second-nature. It’s easy for him to look over the defense and make those cross-court passes. It’s something that we see every day in practice. When he’s able to do it in a game it looks even better.”

Garrett then hit a pair of free throws, McCormack converted one of his own to continue what became a 9-for-12 shooting effort at the stripe for the third-year Jayhawk, and while Avery Anderson’s 3 again trimmed the visitors' deficit to single-digits, McCormack responded with an offensive rebound and second-chance layup on the other end for a 65-55 lead with four minutes left.

OSU got no closer than eight the rest of the way.

“As poor as he was to start the game, he was that good to start the second half,” Self said of McCormack. “I was proud of him. I thought he did some good things. I thought defensively, other than a couple of plays, I thought his ball-screen defense was better. We didn’t do much to help him behind the initial ball-screen defense early. But I thought he did great. We’ve got to figure out a way to make those uncontested, easy baskets early in the game, but ... I thought David did really well.”

Garrett finished with 17 points, while Christian Braun (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Wilson (11 points, 11 rebounds) joined McCormack as Jayhawks with double-doubles. Ochai Agbaji notched 10 points for KU, which won despite shooting 41.1% from the floor, committing 19 turnovers and getting just two points from its bench.

“For a team that was really pressing and playing tight, and as much as you (tell them to) play loose and everything, it’s easier said than done,” Self said. “So sometimes you’ve just got to embrace it and say, ‘OK, we’re going to be tight. Let’s just guard the heck out of people and don’t worry about offense.’ We had some goals that we wanted to do defensively and we matched those goals and so the offense wasn’t quite as big a factor or it didn’t stand out as much on us being inefficient because we did guard and we did rebound on the other end.”

Freshman standout Cade Cunningham (26 points, nine rebounds) led the way for OSU, which itself shot just 34.9% on the evening. A projected NBA Draft lottery pick, Cunningham was met with “overrated” chants by the Jayhawk student section late in Monday’s contest.

“I love our student body and I think we have a ridiculously bright student body, average ACT score may be 31, I don’t know, but that’s one area that I don’t think that they probably scored well because that kid is not overrated, that kid is good,” Self said. “It’s just kids being kids. But yeah, he’s really good. He makes others better and he makes the game easier for everybody else.”

KU will now look to string together a winning streak against the Big 12's bottom-feeders, beginning with a 6 p.m. Thursday matchup against Iowa State. A road rematch at the Cyclones (2 p.m. Saturday) and a contest at Kansas State (8 p.m. Tuesday) will conclude a pivotal stretch Self labeled “as big as it gets."

“Our next two-to-three games are definitely dire and big for us,” said McCormack, who has averaged 18 points and 7.4 rebounds across KU's last five games. “We approach them as if it’s the biggest game anyone can play, the most important this season. So we’re going to play to our fullest and play with a full heart.”

KANSAS 78, NO. 23 OKLAHOMA STATE 66

OKLAHOMA STATE (12-6, 5-6 Big 12)

Anderson 4-9 4-4 13, Cunningham 7-18 8-10 26, Likekele 5-13 0-0 10, Williams 1-6 0-0 3, Boone 3-4 2-2 8, Walker 0-7 1-2 1, Moncrieffe 0-0 0-0 0, Kouma 0-0 0-0 0, Flavors 2-6 0-0 5. Totals 22-63 15-18 66.

KANSAS (13-7, 7-5 Big 12)

Garrett 5-7 7-8 17, Braun 4-7 4-4 15, Wilson 4-12 3-4 11, Agbaji 3-10 2-2 10, McCormack 7-16 9-12 23, Grant-Foster 0-0 0-0 0, Harris 0-0 0-0 0, Enaruna 0-2 1-2 1, Lightfoot 0-2 1-2 1. Totals 23-56 27-34 78.

Half — Kansas 28-25. 3-point goals — OSU 7-26 (Cunningham 4-8, Anderson 1-3, Williams 1-4, Flavors 1-5, Likekele 0-2, Walker 0-4), Kansas 5-15 (Braun 3-5, Agbaji 2-6, Enaruna 0-1, Wilson 0-3). Rebounds — OSU 32 (Cunningham 9), Kansas 45 (Wilson 11). Assists — OSU 10 (Likekele 4), Kansas 13 (Garrett 4). Turnovers — OSU 18 (Cunningham 7), Kansas 19 (Garrett 5). Blocks — OSU 7 (Boone 4), Kansas 6 (Lightfoot 3). Steals — OSU 7 (Walker 2, Cunningham 2), Kansas 9 (Agbaji 4). Total fouls — OSU 24, Kansas 15. Fouled out — none. Technical fouls — none. Officials — Sirmons, Rastatter, Luckie. Attendance — 2,500.