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Kansas center Ernest Udeh needed only 8 minutes to make mark against Iowa State

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Kansas center Ernest Udeh Jr. (23) dunks over Iowa State forward Hason Ward (24) during a Big 12 Tournament semifinal game on March 10, 2023, in Kansas City.

Kansas center Ernest Udeh Jr. (23) dunks over Iowa State forward Hason Ward (24) during a Big 12 Tournament semifinal game on March 10, 2023, in Kansas City.

nwagner@kcstar.com

Kansas freshman Ernest Udeh Jr. scanned the court at T-Mobile Center and felt a sense of Deja Vu.

He recognized the zone Iowa State was running … it was the same one opposing teams had run against his Dr. Phillips High School team.

The counter? Udeh would attack teams from the short corner — the edge of the paint on the baseline — where he often found himself open for lobs due to his height and length.

As Udeh looked toward KU guard Dajuan Harris, Udeh’s eyes bulged.

That was his signal — it was officially showtime. Harris lobbed the ball, Udeh caught it in mid-air and slammed it home between two Iowa State defenders in the Jayhawks’ eventual 71-58 win.

It was the same play Udeh had run plenty of times in high school with the same result.

The dunk put KU up by two possessions after ISU had threatened to gain momentum.

“I was just trying to create energy from that. It was really a close game,” Udeh said. “We knew they were going to be tough. I was just trying to create energy and do what I can.”

Udeh only played eight minutes but made his mark.

The center finished with four points on 2-for-4 shooting and blocked two shots.

“He gave us energy and got to loose balls,” acting KU coach Norm Roberts said. “He had a great dunk and should have had another dunk, but he passed it out. When he plays with energy like that, it really helps the team.”

Udeh helped make sure ISU’s lead lasted only 18 seconds.

Early in the second half, Iowa State took its first — and only — lead after going on a 14-5 run. At that point, the score was 39-38.

Roberts turned to a seldom-seen double-big lineup of KJ Adams and Udeh to match the length of Iowa State.

His hand was somewhat forced, though, as Kansas forward Jalen Wilson got into foul trouble and guard Kevin McCullar exited the game due to back spasms.

It’s rare to see KU turn to a double-big lineup — especially without floor-spacing forward Zach Clemence — but it’s not a new concept for Adams and Udeh.

According to Udeh, both bigs played together throughout the summer and got comfortable in those lineups. It showed — Kansas’ defense tightened and allowed the Jayhawks to regain the lead.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise for Roberts.

“We should be really good defensively and we should be able to protect and that stuff,” Roberts said.

Defense and vertical spacing weren’t the only way Udeh made an impact.

Udeh came up with a block, a dunk, a steal and then hit two free throws — he entered the game shooting 38.9% at the line — in perhaps the most productive 40-second stretch of his KU career.

“(Free-throw shooting) is definitely an area of my game that I need to improve on if I want to get where I want to go,” Udeh said. “And also helping the team.”

His KU teammates believe he has that potential. They see a different version of Udeh on and off the court from the 18-year-old that arrived in Lawrence last summer.

“He looks more confident. He’s challenging guys and he’s going to block shots,” said Kansas guard Bobby Pettiford. “Coaches tell him, ‘You gotta go get those. You know we are going to wall up.’

“He’s just being more active (with) his hands. He can really guard all five positions, so we’re trying to see that.”

That’s why Pettiford isn’t surprised Udeh is starting to find his way.

“I’ve been saying since the summer, I’ve seen the potential in Ernie,” said Pettiford. “He just has to learn the game a little bit. He’s had times where he’s not sure what to do.

“I said, ‘Ern, just play with your energy.’ … He’ll be just fine. He started learning. He will be good.”

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Shreyas Laddha covers KU hoops and football for The Star. He’s a Georgia native and graduated from the University of Georgia.

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