For a while, Kansas was in serious trouble of becoming Saturday's first big NCAA men's tournament upset story.
No. 14 seed Eastern Washington jumped out to a 9-0 lead and rode its white-hot shooting to a 46-38 halftime edge. But as EWU's shooting cooled off, Kansas heated up, riding a 14-3 second half run to take a 64-63 lead, its first of the second half. The No. 4 seed Jayhawks didn't look back en route to a 93-84 win to fend off the first-round upset bid.
McCormack returns from COVID to lead Kansas rally
They got a big boost from All-Big 12 forward David McCormack, who played in his first game since a bout with COVID-19 knocked him and Kansas out of the Big 12 tournament.
McCormack, in a rare bench role, appeared to be feeling fine while posting 22 points and nine rebounds while leading the second-half Kansas charge.
The win thwarted the strong shooting efforts from Eastern Washington brothers Tanner and Jacob Groves, who combined for 58 points in the loss.
Jayhawks were down multiple players because of COVID-19
The Jayhawks won the game without Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna, whom head coach Bill Self confirmed this week contracted COVID-19 alongside McCormack.
Self wasn't sure prior to the game how much McCormack would be able to contribute. He told reporters on Wednesday that he didn't expect him to play many minutes against EWU.
“How much we can utilize David remains to be seen, just because how he feels and his timing and all those things,"Self told reporters, per the Kansas City Star. "You will not be able to count on him for a significant number of minutes, I don’t believe on Saturday, even though it’d be nice if we could.”
Self on McCormack: 'He was really great'
He ended up playing 25 minutes as Kansas' second-leading scorer and top rebounder on the day despite coming off the bench. Senior guard Marcus Garrett paced the starting unit with 23 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
"I really thought and our doctors thought we could get 15, 20 minutes today," Self said of McCormack after the game. .. "He kind of got his legs under him. He was really, really good in the second half. He played great.
"Gives me some hope for Jalen coming back. It was pretty impressive how he played and his conditioning."
Career games for EWU brothers
The Jayhawks needed the big game from McCormack as they faced lights-out shooting from the Groves brothers, who each posted career-high scoring totals in their NCAA tournament debuts.
Tanner, a junior forward, tallied 35 points and five rebounds while connecting on 11 of 18 field goal attempts and 5 of 11 shots from 3-point distance. Jacob, a sophomore guard, hit 8 of 11 field goals and 4 of 5 3-point attempts en route to 23 points and nine rebounds.
Tanner entered the day averaging 16.4 points per game. Jacob averaged 8.7 points before Saturday. That they posted their career efforts in the biggest game of their lives is remarkable. It just wasn't enough to secure the upset over blue-blood Kansas.
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