By Dan Gardella
Brooklyn, NY – Opening night, the opening days of the NCAA Tournament, and Feast Week. The three most exciting times of the college basketball season (in my opinion). As Feast Week came to a close (in terms of the more popular tournaments), the NIT Season Tip Off had one last classic within the week.
In the third battle between two teams ranked in the AP Top Ten this season, Kansas used another double-double from tournament MVP Dedric Lawson and a lift off the bench from his brother, KJ Lawson to help #2 Kansas knock off #5 Tennessee 87-81 in overtime to claim the NIT Season Tip Off title.
Both teams entered the championship coming off of wins in which they came back and asserted their dominance. Tennessee used a late run to beat Louisville while Kansas used a 22-0 run in the second half to overcome Marquette.
Kansas threw the first punch in the classic courtesy of Lagerald Vick’s three pointer from the corner to give the Jayhawks the lead. Try as the Volunteers might, they would not be able to take that lead throughout the first 16 minutes of the contest.
Things would begin to turn Tennessee’s way though. With 8:20 remaining in the first half and Kansas leading 19-14, Jayhawk big man Udoka Azubuike would pick up his second personal found. Due to a lack of discipline at times, head coach Bill Self would not allow Azubuike to see the floor for the rest of the half to preserve him for the second half.
The Volunteers would take advantage of that.
Over the final 8:20 of the half, Tennessee would outscore Kansas 19-12, highlighted by two slams by Kyle Alexander and a sharpshooting Lamonte Turner. Rick Barnes’s group would go into halftime leading the Jayhawks 33-31, something that would’ve looked like a dream scenario for the Volunteers just minutes earlier.
The second half would open on another Alexander dunk to give the Volunteers the early momentum. Azubuike would use his big frame to help Kansas get back into the game, coming from dunks and defense, but would once again struggle with fouls. He would pick up two fouls in the matter of the first four minutes of the second half to once again put him in foul trouble forcing Self’s hand and taking him out.
Insert K.J. Lawson.
Lawson, who transferred from Memphis to Kansas with his brother Dedric only played 17 minutes through the first four games of the season. Due to the foul trouble Azubuike saw himself in, Lawson stepped up and not only gave Kansas good minutes, but also produced.
In 19 minutes, Lawson dropped 8 points and grabbed 6 rebounds to keep Kansas around and give them a chance to win the game.
“When Udoka isn’t in the game, we have no low post scoring unless Dedric plays down there,” Self said about giving KJ Lawson more minutes. “We can stretch the floor to allow Dedric to work inside.”
“I’ve been ready since day one. You got to be ready once your name is call,” Lawson said.
Just like on the streets of Tennessee, and AAU days, the Lawson brothers were doing their thing on the biggest stage in college basketball.
“Going in there, he has my back and I have his. We look out for each other I’m glad to see my brother get a chance to go out there and play,” Dedric Lawson said. “I thought he played terrific. He came out there with energy. He’s a dog on the floor.”
Though the Lawson’s were at their best, the rest of the team was not. Sloppy play and the loss of a large part of their offense in foul trouble, Kansas remained behind for most of the second half and saw their deficit grow as large as seven with 12 minutes to go.
Just two days earlier, they were down as much as 11 against Marquette. Seven points was nothing.
Behind the Lawson brothers, and Vick, who has been arguably the hottest shooter in college basketball, Kansas climbed back and tied the game at 56 with 7:24 to play thanks to a Vick three pointer.
From that point on, the lead would swap hands six different times and would sit tied at 69 with a minute and a half to play.
Kansas would ultimately control possession for a majority of the final 90 seconds and sat with a chance to win it in regulation. With two seconds left, Dedric Lawson caught the ball off of an inbounds pass, turned and shot it, but too far as time expired to send the second game of the night to an extra period.
From the tip of overtime, Kansas rocked the Barclays Centers, with the Lawson brothers combining for 11 of the teams 18 overtime points. The Jayhawks would never trail in the extra time and would finish off the Volunteers for a preseason tournament title.
“It’s ok to win ugly. Winning ugly is actual pretty in the end,” Self said. “it gave our guys some confidence.”
For Tennessee, it was another instance of letting another preseason tournament game slip through their fingers.
“I felt we were way too emotional during the first half of the game. Just too many bad shots from the three point line,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We took too many bad shots. It’s disappointing.”
Kansas returns home to face Stanford at Allen Fieldhouse next Saturday while Tennessee faces Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday.
PHOTO: Diedric Lawson/barclayscenter