CHICAGO - Kansas is sticking around at the NCAA tournament. No early exit this time for the Jayhawks.
Sent to the sidelines by first-round losses against Bucknell and Bradley the last two seasons, top-seeded Kansas (31-4) took over early and was simply too fast, too deep and too talented for Niagara.
“We heard a lot about last year and the year before that, but that’s over and done with,” said Mario Chalmers, who had 19 points to lead Kansas to a 107-67 win Friday night in the West Regional.
“We can’t do anything about that,” Chalmers said of the past. “That last 8 minutes of the first half was really key for us. We took a lead and never looked back from there.”
The Jayhawks, who will play Kentucky on Sunday in the second round, built a 25-point halftime lead with their defense and fast break before coasting in the second half.
“Trust me, we didn’t approach this as a No. 1 vs. No. 16 after what’s happened to us the last two years,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
“We put a lot of emphasis and spent a lot of time on the scouting report and really emphasized this game. We said we have to win a two-game tournament and we can’t win the second one unless we win the first one. There was maybe more emphasis on this game for us, than maybe what there is for other (top seeds).”
When they weren’t running for points, the Jayhawks were sinking shots from long range with ease in winning their 12th straight game. They were 13-of-22 on 3-pointers, and Niagara made only 2-of-19.
When Chalmers hit two 3-pointers and Russell Robinson added another to open the second half, the Jayhawks had a 61-33 lead. Then it was pretty much showtime.
The lead went to 81-40 with 10 minutes remaining after another steal and fast-break basket by Chalmers. A dunk by reserve Brady Morningstar with 3:44 left gave the Jayhawks 101 points.
Niagara (23-12), which beat Florida A&M 77-69 in Tuesday’s play-in game at Dayton, had a 12-game winning streak ended after a busy week of travel.
“We could have just lost to the national champions, I truly believe it,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said.
“We didn’t play North Carolina. We didn’t play UCLA. But if they’re better than this team, I’ve got to see it,” he added.
“For us to get this done, it would have been the perfect storm. We needed for them to not make shots, we couldn’t have an off night, and that certainly was not the case in either area.”
And Mihalich figured the Jayhawks — making the school’s 18th straight NCAA tournament appearance — would be ready to play after their early ousters the last two years.
“It didn’t help us that they got bumped off the last couple of years,” he said “They were pretty determined not to let that happen again.”
The Jayhawks also got 16 points, eight assists and five steals from Robinson and 15 points, six assists and four steals from Collins, a former three-sport prep star in Chicago. Kansas had five players in double figures.
Charron Fisher paced 16th-seeded Niagara with 17.
Played at the breakneck pace that is to the Jayhawks’ liking, Kansas opened up a 12-point lead with the quick defense of Robinson and Collins generating the break. Julian Wright, another former Chicago-area prep star who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, converted a three-point play after a fast break. Brandon Rush scored again at the end of another break.
Collins’ 3-pointer and Wright’s left-handed follow gave the Jayhawks a 15-point cushion with 3 minutes left in the half. The lead grew to 50-27 in a hurry when Collins hit a 3 and Rodrick Stewart converted a three-point play after he was fouled on the break.
Kansas had a 27-15 edge in points off turnovers and 27-12 margin in fast-break points. The Jayhawks shot 54 percent for the game to 32 percent for the Purple Eagles, who were hurt by 21 turnovers.
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