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Southeast Missouri State men's basketball team falls to Kansas in opener
The seventh-ranked Jayhawks pulled away late to post a 74-55 victory Friday night
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Southeast Missouri State coach Dickey Nutt approached old friend Bill Self before Friday night's game and asked him why the team was in Lawrence, playing seventh-ranked Kansas.
Nutt felt his team had no business inside Allen Fieldhouse.
By the end of the game, his Redhawks proved they belonged.
They pulled within six points midway through the second half, silencing the crowd, but the Jayhawks eventually created enough separation to finish with a 74-55 victory.
"We just couldn't hold the gate. We played well enough to keep it competitive," Nutt said. "It was a great experience for us. I think we grew up tonight."
Despite scoring just four points in the opening 10 minutes, the Redhawks stayed within striking distance. They held the Jayhawks to 39 percent shooting and 2-for-21 from beyond the arc.
"We gave them some open looks, but tonight we just got lucky, because I know they're a good shooting team," said senior guard Nick Niemczyk, who led the Redhawks with 14 points.
The Jayhawks finished the game on a 31-18 run.
"They are big and strong," Nutt said, "but I was proud of our team."
The Redhawks, who have lost seven straight season openers, all on the road, remain winless in six tries against Big 12 schools.
Ben McLemore had nine points, 12 rebounds and five assists in his Kansas debut. Fellow-freshman Perry Ellis added 15 points and eight boards while Jeff Withey finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds as the Jayhawks won their 40th straight season opener at Allen Fieldhouse.
This one was a bit tougher than expected.
Kansas returns three starters from last year's national runners-up, including the 7-foot Withey, a preseason honorable-mention All-America selection. But the two guys they lost left gaping holes: Big 12 player of the year Thomas Robinson, who left early for the NBA draft, and Tyshawn Taylor, a senior guard who also went in the draft.
In their place are a bunch of newcomers -- nine in all -- including McLemore and Jamari Traylor, who were forced to redshirt last season after the NCAA ruled them partial qualifiers.
McLemore started the game along with Ellis, a school-boy star from Wichita, Kan.
The Jayhawks certainly showed some growing pains in their only tuneup before facing No. 14 Michigan State next week. They turned it over 13 times and finished 2 for 21 from beyond the 3-point arc, with top sharp-shooter Elijah Johnson missing all four of his attempts.
Early on, though, it looked like it was going to the quintessential Kansas romp.
Withey threw down a thunderous dunk off a feed from McLemore, and the Jayhawks' freshman wave played defense with the same zeal that took the program to the Final Four last season.
By the time Naadir Tharpe buried a 3 from the wing, Kansas had scored the first 11 points.
It was the last 3-pointer the Jayhawks would hit until the final minutes.
Kansas built on its lead throughout the first half, forcing Nutt to call a timeout when Withey's basket with 4:25 remaining made it 28-14. But things started to unravel when the Jayhawks continually misfired from beyond the arc.
The Redhawks still trailed 36-19 with about 18 minutes remaining, but sophomore forward Nino Johnson's three-point play got their rally started. Junior point guard Lucas Nutt and senior guard Marland Smith added a pair of free throws, and after McLemore soared for a follow-up dunk, Johnson and Niemczyk added two more baskets.
The 11-2 surge got Southeast within 38-30.
The Redhawks, picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference West Division, kept taking advantage of the Jayhawks' ineptitude on offense, whittling the lead to 43-37 with 12 minutes left.
But when Elijah Johnson went to the bench with his fourth foul, Kansas took off.
Withey got to the line for a pair of free throws, McLemore added a slashing layup, and Travis Releford got into the act with two free throws. By the time Ellis converted a three-point play with just under 8 minutes to go, the Jayhawks had extended the lead back to 54-41.
Kansas managed to grind the rest of the time off the clock, even chipping in a couple of highlights along the way: McLemore's soaring dunk off a miss by Johnson with just over 4 minutes left, and a rim-rattling dunk by Withey that energized the crowd moments later.
"The first half we played good, we just didn't make any shots," Self said. "You defend, you rebound, you don't turn it over, you get decent looks -- we were up 15 the first half and based on how they shot it and we defended, we could have easily been up 25."
Nutt liked the Redhawks' defense and the way Southeast battled back in the second half.
"I thought our defensive effort was very good," Nutt said. "We came out in the second half and really showed some fight. We finally settled down in the second half."
Southeast shot just 29 percent but Nutt said the Jayhawks' defense, especially their size, had plenty to do with that.
Niemczyk came off the bench to lead Southeast in scoring. Johnson added 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
Friday's game marked Kansas' 181st consecutive sellout at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks are 92-1 in their last 93 home games.
Southeast senior guard Corey Wilford did not make the trip. Nutt said Wilford is suspended for the first two games of the season for violating unspecified team policy over the summer.
Wilford also will sit out Monday's home opener against NAIA Lyon College but return for Thursday's home game against McNeese State.
Staff writer Marty Mishow contributed to this report.