David McCormack gave third-seeded Kansas a spark when the big man returned from his COVID-19 quarantine in time to practice for its NCAA Tournament opener.
When the first round game against Eastern Washington began, McCormack gave the Jayhawks much more than a boost of energy.
Put on the ropes early by Tanner Groves and the Big Sky champs, McCormack responded by piling up 22 points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes of work to help slow-starting Kansas rally from a 10-point second-half deficit and beat the No. 14 seed Eagles 93-84 on Saturday to advance to the second round.
“David brought us energy from the time he arrived yesterday,” said Marcus Garrett, one of his closest friends, who fought through foul trouble to add 20 points. “He was just happy to be with us, happy to be back on the court.”
Ochai Agbaji contributed 21 points, Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 13 and Christian Braun overcame a poor shooting day to score 12 as the Jayhawks (21-8) survived the scare to play sixth-seeded Southern California for a spot in the Sweet 16.
Kansas has now won 14 consecutive first-round games in the NCAA Tournament.
“We told our guys you have to play well so your teammates get a chance to experience this,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team is still missing Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna due to COVID-19.
“We didn’t talk about what we did not have, we talked about what we had, that we had to play well, and what we had was enough.”
Tanner Groves scored a career-high 35 points and younger brother Jacob Groves had 23 for the Eagles (16-8), whose third trip to the NCAA Tournament ended just as quickly as the first two – though not without putting up a fight.
The aptly named “Groves Bros” got Eastern Washington off to a flying start. The pair of All-Big Sky forwards combined to score the first nine points of the game and forced Jayhawks coach Bill Self to burn through early timeouts.
Kansas settled down and put together a 17-5 run and suddenly looked again like the big boys out of the Big 12. But Shantay Legans’ motley crew of underrated and overlooked sharp-shooters finished the half on a 24-10 charge.
The Groves kids were at it again. They combined for 3-pointers on three straight trips down floor, then Tyler Robertson added a fourth from the top of the key to give Eastern Washington a 46-38 lead headed into the locker room.
“I just thought Tanner had the advantage all game long and he came up big for us,” Legans said. “He came up aces.”
Compounding problems for Kansas: Garrett, one of the nation’s best defenders, picked up his third foul before the break.
Self turned to McCormack to bail the Jayhawks out. Even though he was only expected to play about 10 minutes a half after his bout with COVID-19, the big guy went to work in the paint as if he hadn’t missed a day. He scored their first eight points of the second half, trying to keep Kansas alive until his teammates could find their shots.
They finally did midway through the second half.
Still trailing 63-59, Agbaji threw down a dunk in transition to begin a game-changing 14-3 run. Seldom-used Harris drained back-to-back 3-pointers, McCormack added back-to-back buckets inside, and Garrett – who is hardly known for his outside shooting – hit the first of his three second-half 3s as the Jayhawks took a 73-66 lead.
McCormack, who tested positive for the coronavirus before last week’s Big 12 Tournament, continued to score in the post down the stretch, helping the Jayhawks avoid the same fate that befell top-four seed Ohio State and Purdue on Friday.
“We came up short but that’s alright. I’m just really happy with the performance our team put together,” Tanner Groves said. “It feels really cool that we were able to keep it really close with Kansas – make it a game, give them a little scare.”
Eastern Washington followed the recipe for an upset perfectly: It shot 50% from the field, hit 10 3-pointers, protected the ball and battled the Jayhawks to a standstill on the glass. But the Eagles’ defense let them down in the second half, when Kansas began getting open looks and knocking them down.
Kansas could get Wilson back for the next round, though the timing will be tight. The Jayhawks’ leading rebounder is due to finish his quarantine period on Sunday, meaning he would not get to practice before their next game. Enaruna would not be cleared to return until the middle of next week.