LAWRENCE, Kan. — Dajuan Harris Jr. was willing to acknowledge that Kansas was facing something rare when fifth-ranked and Big 12-leading Texas arrived at Allen Fieldhouse on Monday night: a must-win game.
The defending national champs played like it.
Gradey Dick scored 21 points, Harris had 17 points, six rebounds and five assists, and the ninth-ranked Jayhawks held on after blowing a 14-point first-half lead to beat the Longhorns 88-80 and tighten the league race.
Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points, Joseph Yesufu scored 14 off the bench and KJ Adams finished with 10, helping the Jayhawks (19-5, 7-4) overcome an off night from Jalen Wilson. The league's leading scorer at 21.5 points per game battled foul trouble and was held to just two, ending his streak of 25 straight double-figure games.
"We knew we had to come in here and get a win," said Dick, who had the Jayhawks' only two 3-pointers. "The big thing, just in preparation for the week, was coming out with energy. When we do that, we're a scary team."
The Jayhawks needed everyone's help holding off the Longhorns' Marcus Carr.
The Minnesota transfer, who had a game-high 29 points, kept answering Kansas baskets down the stretch. His 3-pointer got the Longhorns within 77-68 with 2:25 left, three free throws made it 78-71 with 1:31 to go, and his three-point play got the Longhorns (19-5, 8-3) within 86-80 with 23.5 seconds remaining.
Texas quickly fouled Dick at the other end, and his free throw with 18 seconds left helped to put the game away.
"It was as close to a must-win as you could have this early in the season to win the league," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "You go down three games with seven left, you'd have to win out and get a lot of help from others. Now, we still have as hard a schedule as everybody, but we can kind of control our own destiny where if we play well, we have a shot."
Timmy Allen finished with 18 points for the Longhorns. Sir'Jabari Rice had 12 before fouling out.
"It was their night tonight in terms of what they got done," Texas interim coach Rodney Terry said.
The Longhorns have made a habit of overcoming double-digit deficits: 18 down to beat TCU, 12 down to beat Texas Tech and 14 down to beat No. 12 Kansas State last Saturday in a game played just down the road.
So it wasn't that surprising when Texas dug another 14-point hole Monday night.
Just like the Longhorns did in Manhattan, though, they began to rally. Texas shook off 10 first-half turnovers to get within 42-35 by the break, then kept coming in the second half. Hunter hit a 3-pointer, Carr added a couple of buckets and it was 43-all when Self called a timeout to slow Texas' momentum.
Unlike the Horned Frogs, Red Raiders and Wildcats, the Jayhawks rose to the challenge.
McCullar's three-point play while they were clinging to a 49-48 lead gave them a boost, and Dick added a couple of free throws. But it was back-to-back buckets by Harris, who is known more as a distributor than as a scorer, that pushed the lead to 58-50 with about 12 minutes to go.
Texas closed within 66-60 but, after the Jayhawks pulled down two offensive boards, Dick hit another 3-pointer. And when Yesufu bookended a couple of free throws by Harris, the lead had stretched to 75-62 with 3 minutes to go.
The Jayhawks were able to fend off Carr and the Longhorns from there.
"Give those guys credit. They came in and played at a very high level," Terry said, "and we knew that would be the case."
The Jayhawks were missing several backups. Zack Clemence has a hurt knee, Bobby Pettiford Jr. is dealing with a hamstring injury and Zuby Ejiofor a foot injury. Kyle Cuffe Jr. (knee) and Cam Martin (shoulder) also were out.
"I thought the bench was great. As good as they've been all year," Self said. "We had nine guys we could put in the game."
Texas has struggled to get off to good starts this season, and it seemed the energy the Longhorns expended climbing back into Monday night's game was missing by the end. Carr tried to carry them but he needed more help.
Kansas got the production it needed from the bench. Yesufu provided the scoring pop but big man Ernest Udeh Jr. and guard MJ Rice, both seldom-used freshmen, also provided important minutes for the Jayhawks.
Texas heads home after its Sunflower State swing to play West Virginia on Saturday.
Kansas has a two-game trip next with Oklahoma on Saturday and Oklahoma State on Tuesday.