KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Ochai Agbaji tried to convince everyone listening that he wasn’t looking past UTEP to a showdown with Missouri.
The smirk that he tried to hide gave him away.
Still, the high-scoring Kansas guard held his focus long enough to pour in 23 points Tuesday night, helping the eighth-ranked Jayhawks roll to a 78-52 blowout of the Miners in their last tune-up for the return of the Border War.
“I know the rivalry. I know the Border War,” Agbaji said. “It means a lot to me because growing up on the Missouri side, I kind of get their perspective on KU. Now being at KU, I just know they hate each other.”
There wasn’t such disdain for UTEP, though the Jayhawks didn’t treat their visitors kindly.
Christian Braun scored 20 points, and David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot had eight apiece, as the Jayhawks (7-1) built a 21-point lead by the break at T-Mobile Center and never looked back in one of their most dominant performances of the season.
“Ochai’s playing really well and, like I said last game, I’m just feeding off him,” Braun said. “Especially early, he’s been on a roll. That’s Ochai. We don’t have to be surprised anymore, or think he’s on some little run. That’s who he’s going to be.”
Souley Boom had 18 points and Keonte Kennedy 11 for UTEP (4-4), which famously beat the Jayhawks during their 1966 national title run immortalized in the film “Glory Road.” The Miners also beat Kansas to reach the Sweet 16 in 1992.
Such history had little bearing Tuesday night.
The Jayhawks, the nation’s sixth-highest scoring team, showed right away they can play a little defense, too, forcing UTEP into missing its first six shots and committing four turnovers before Boum knocked down a 3-pointer.
By then, the Jayhawks had a 10-point lead and didn’t look back. They forced a series of turnovers — at one point, four in five possessions — and most of them turned into layups at the other end. When Kansas was forced to run some offense, it merely had to find Braun cutting to the basket or McCormack posting up for an easy lay-in or dunk.
“They’re a well-oiled basketball team and they can make you really question yourself at times,” UTEP associate head coach Jeremy Cox said. “They’re extremely talented, extremely well-coached. They’re well paced. I haven’t enjoyed watching and scouting a team going into more than that one. They’re worth the price of admission to watch.”
The Jayhawks eventually led 42-21 at halftime, then cruised the rest of the way into Saturday’s showdown.
Kansas and Missouri began playing in 1907 but haven’t taken the floor together — besides an exhibition for hurricane relief — since the Tigers jilted the Jayhawks and the rest of the Big 12 for the riches of the SEC. In their last game, Kansas rallied from 19 down to win at Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 25, 2012.
The Jayhawks and Tigers were supposed to begin their six-game series last year, but it was pushed to this year because of the pandemic. Their football teams have since decided to play a four-game set beginning in 2025.
“I assume there won’t be a lot of empty seats,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It’s the best game on our schedule. You can talk about Kentucky or Texas or Baylor — this is the best game on our schedule, at least for fan participation and player participation.”
“T” ME UP
Self was given a technical foul with 9:44 left and his team leading 58-39. He took umbrage when official Amy Bonner called a foul on Jalen Wilson during a fight for a rebound. Self sarcastically clapped after the “T” was given.
UTEP: Had been competitive in its first three losses by a combined 21 points, but the Miners trailed by that with 7 1/2 minutes left in the first half Tuesday night. Still, they played the Jayhawks even most of the second half.
Kansas: Got sloppy on offense after the break, particularly when running the fast break. That was just about the only flaw on what was perhaps the Jayhawks’ best defensive performance of the season so far.
UTEP: Visit The Pit to play New Mexico on Sunday.
Kansas: Welcome Missouri to Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday.
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