Ag­baji’s wrong spot helped turn game

The Kansas City Star - - Sports - BY JESSE NEWELL [email protected]­

Bill Self loves en­ergy play­ers, and it’s not dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why.

A mil­lion things hap­pen each bas­ket­ball game, po­ten­tially mak­ing ev­ery de­tail im­por­tant. Small rip­ples can some­times cre­ate huge waves, and one never knows when an ac­tion that could com­pletely swing a game’s mo­men­tum.

Ochai Ag­baji helped turn the game for KU in Satur­day’s 73-68 vic­tory at Bay­lor. With the Jay­hawks floun­der­ing at the end of the first half — and the team’s 16-point lead down to two — the fresh­man made an in­di­vid­ual play.

But per­haps just as im­por­tant, he put him­self in po­si­tion to be there.

It would have been eas­ily missed watch­ing the game at home. ESPN’s cam­eras — fol­low­ing a Bay­lor foul on Lager­ald Vick — fo­cused in on the Bears. Be­fore that, though, it’s worth watch­ing KU’s K.J. Law­son, who cir­cled to the lane to fist bump his brother Dedric.

When ESPN’s fo­cus zooms back out to show Vick’s one-and-one free throw, it’s like a magic trick has taken place. Dedric is on one side of the paint ... and Ag­baji is on the other.

This doesn’t make any sense on the sur­face. K.J. is 6-foot-8, and plays the for­ward po­si­tion for KU. Ag­baji is a guard, and only 6-5. The safe as­sump­tion would be that K.J. would be the bet­ter re­bounder of the two.

So what hap­pened here? Ag­baji sim­ply de­cided he wanted to be there. In a few sec­onds, he walked up to K.J., told him to switch, then sta­tioned him­self be­tween two Bay­lor play­ers out­side the lane.

“I just wanted to get after it,” Ag­baji said with a smile. “K.J.’s a good of­fen­sive re­bounder too, but I just wanted to get in there, do what I could do.”

The truth here: As ea­ger as Ag­baji was, the ball was un­likely to come to him.

For one, Vick en­tered as a 70 per­cent free-throw shooter. Also, based on the lat­est num­bers I could find on of­fen­sive re­bound­ing from the 2013-14 sea­son, NCAA teams only track down of­fen­sive re­bounds on 13.4 per­cent of their free-throw misses, mak­ing the play a long shot at best.

It ap­pears some­one on KU’s bench noted the mix-up as well. Just be­fore Vick’s free throw, Ag­baji looks down the side­line, push­ing both palms to­ward the ground, as if to say, ‘Don’t worry. I got this.”

Self has re­peated an old coach­ing mantra of­ten in the past: “The ball finds en­ergy.” In this case, when Vick missed, the ball car­omed to­ward the per­son whose ac­tions in­di­cated he wanted it the most.

Ag­baji held his ground against Bay­lor’s Mario Ke­gler, then de­flected the ball with his right hand to­ward the mid­dle of the court.

That seemed to spark team­mates as well. Vick out­jumped two Bears to get his own touch on the ball, then K.J. Law­son saved it from go­ing out of bounds.

Later in the pos­ses­sion, KU played un­selfishly to open up a shot, with Vick fin­ish­ing the se­quence with a three-pointer from the left wing.

It was the start of a sig­nif­i­cant stretch for KU. The Jay­hawks — with an ex­tra boost of de­fen­sive en­thu­si­asm — forced two straight de­fen­sive turnovers. On the other end, Ag­baji hit a three, and Devon Dot­son drove to the bas­ket for a layup.

Sud­denly, KU’s lead was 10 at half­time again, and the Jay­hawks’ ad­van­tage was never se­ri­ously chal­lenged after that.

Self praised Ag­baji after the game, go­ing as far as to say he was be­com­ing one of the team’s best play­ers. In only his sec­ond out­ing after de­cid­ing against a red­shirt, Ag­baji played to his ath­leti­cism in his 21 min­utes while re­main­ing poised in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.

At a cru­cial time, he also did some­thing I’m not sure any other Jay­hawk would have done. He de­manded to be in the mo­ment, and with­out be­ing told, in­serted him­self into the ac­tion.

Ag­baji — in short — called his own au­di­ble.

And wouldn’t you know it ... the ball found his en­ergy.

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