Before playing his first NCAA Tournament game for Kansas, Dedric Lawson tucked himself in early to make sure he was early to answer the bell for the Jayhawks.
“I went to bed early,” said the junior forward, “so the morning could come faster and so we could get out there and be a part of such a great opportunity. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.'”
While sitting out last season as a transfer from Memphis, Lawson watched as the Jayhawks made a Final Four run.
He was one of five first-year Kansas starters in the lineup to open the 2019 tourney and notched a double-double with 25 points and 11 rebounds as No. 4 Kansas (26-9) throttled Northeastern to set up a second-round clash Saturday against No. 5 Auburn (27-9) in the Midwest Region at Salt Lake City.
“Dedric is a hard matchup for folks,” said Kansas coach Bill Self after guiding the Jayhawks to their 13th consecutive first-round win. “If you play small like (Northeastern) did, you have a guard guarding him. And if you play big, he can play away from the basket some.”
Kansas primarily used a small lineup with four guards surrounding Lawson. The Jayhawks drove the rim at will. KU also counted on Lawson’s inside skills to enjoy a 50-16 scoring advantage in the paint. The double-double was the 21st for Lawson, who averages 19.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.
The blowout was a welcome start to the tournament for the Jayhawks, whose record string of 14 consecutive Big 12 championships was snapped before they were thumped by Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament final.
“Overall, I do think that maybe we’re getting an understanding of how we have to play to be successful,” Self said.
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Freshman point guard Devon Dotson has been instrumental in those recent strides, averaging 16 points over the past five games, counting his 18 against Northeastern.
Auburn narrowly avoided a complete meltdown in its first-round win, almost blowing an eight-point lead in the final 2 minutes.
New Mexico State passed up on a game-tying layup late in regulation to hoist a 3-pointer. The Tigers fouled on the attempt, but the Aggies missed two of three free throws and an open 3-pointer from the corner in the final 1.7 seconds.
“Until you get in that moment, you don’t know how you’re going to react,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “We obviously panicked and made our share of mistakes, which could have cost us the game. At the same time, we made enough really good plays throughout the game.”
The Tigers are riding a nine-game winning streak. The last five victories came during an eight-day stretch, prompting Pearl to sense his team was tired after traveling cross-country following their 20-point romp Sunday over Tennessee for the SEC tournament title.
“We had to play hard because of the way New Mexico State plays,” Pearl said. “Our kids were pooped at the end.”
The Tigers set a program record for NCAA Tournament games with 12 3-point field goals Thursday.
Auburn goes with a guard-oriented attack and puts up more than 80 points per game. The more frenetic the pace, the happier Pearl is because of the Tigers’ depth and quality perimeter play.
Point guard Jared Harper, a 5-11 junior, seemingly put Auburn in control, draining four 3-pointers and scoring 14 of his 17 points in the second half. However, he committed two turnovers and fouled out in the final 49 seconds to aid the Aggies’ comeback bid.
Senior guard Bryce Brown leads the balanced Tigers with a 15.8-point average this season. Harper, a junior, averages 15.2 points and 5.7 assists.
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