CHICAGO -- The curse of the No. 1 seeds is over … for now.
Kansas held on to beat Providence 66-61 on Friday at the United Center to advance to the Elite Eight. This came one day after the other two remaining No. 1 seeds -- Gonzaga and Arizona -- were both upset, leaving Kansas as the lone top seed.
The Jayhawks and Friars got off to a slow start, with neither able to find their offensive rhythm.
Kansas head coach Bill Self took all of five minutes before he subbed in guard Remy Martin, who picked up right where he left off against Creighton in the second round. Martin has come off the bench to lead the Jayhawks in scoring through all three tournament games. Against the Bluejays, he scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half.
Martin once again put on a show, scoring 13 points in the first half, most of them done so in style. He entered the lineup and rattled off seven straight points in 1:14 to put Kansas up 13-6.
"This is the second game in a row where he's came in in the first half and just completely taken over. Playing with so much confidence," teammate Jalen Wilson said of Martin's first-half performance "... We need him playing like that. He's been able to save us out of situations when we need a shot late in the clock."
Both teams' offensive struggles continued, but Kansas slowly stretched out the lead to 22-10 with 3:47 remaining in the half.
The Jayhawks were paced by Martin and Wilson, who nearly recorded a double-double through one half after posting seven points and 10 rebounds. He finished the game with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Wilson, however, fouled Providence guard Al Durham on a 3-point attempt with five seconds remaining, sending the Friar’s second-leading scorer to the line. He made two of three free throws to make it a single-digit lead at the half. Durham, typically spot on from the line with an 84.4% free throw percentage, finished the night 4 of 7 from the charity stripe.
The Friars got on the board first out of the halftime break, cutting the lead to 26-19, but that was short-lived. Two quick fouls on Nick Watson in the opening five minutes of the half landed him on the bench and Providence without their leading scorer.
The Jayhawks capitalized on Watson’s absence with two free throws by Christian Braun and back-to-back Kansas layups to push the lead back to 11. The teams exchanged baskets for the next five minutes with the Jayhawks even extending their lead to 13 at one point.
Enter Ed Croswell.
The 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward brought the Providence fans to their feet with seven straight points, capped off by an and-1. Croswell, a career 53.6% free throw shooter, made all three of his free throw attempts on the night.
The Friars continued their run with back-to-back 3-pointers by Noah Horchler, who up until that point had missed all six of his attempts beyond the arc. Two minutes later, A.J. Reeves knocked down two free throws to tie things up at 44 apiece for the first time since it was 4-4 in the first half.
Up until this run, it seemed like there were times that fans in the United Center were more interested in the Sweet 16 matchup between Purdue and Saint Peter’s. With Providence finding their groove, there was suddenly a game to play in Chicago.
Horchler was once again the man of the hour when he gave the Friars their first lead of the night on a layup in traffic. The Jayhawks responded by rattling off seven straight points. With just under four minutes, the Jayhawks led by six. The two teams exchanged free throws but Kansas put the exclamation point on the run when Braun found Ochai Agbaji for the alley-oop in what could be a preview to Agbaji’s NBA career.
“We called that in the timeout before. If they go zone, let’s run our play,” Self said. “Sometimes when you’re really struggling and you’ve got a guy who can go upstairs, that’s the easiest play you can make.”
Providence hung around, bringing it within four five different times, but Kansas had a response every time. The Friars best look came down 60-55 with 28 seconds left when Horchler got the ball at the top of the key and launched with the chance to make it a one-point game only to miss everything altogether. That essentially dashed any hope the Friars had of mounting a comeback, as Kansas put the game away on free throws.
Down the stretch, Martin made seven free throws to seal the win for the Jayhawks and punch their ticket to the Elite Eight.
Abgaji finished with five points, four rebounds and four blocks. The Jayhawks leading scorer is averaging 19.3 points a game, but has shot 36.8% from the field in the tournament. When asked what to make of this "shooting slump," Self said he was comfortable with Abgaji's production on both sides of the ball.
"We can look at it as a shooting slump. And I guess it is, but when you only take eight shots I don't know if I ever consider that a slump," he said. "I know one thing -- the lid will come off eventually. And when it does it will be good for KU people. But right now I think he's doing enough stuff to help us win and we've had other guys step up. So we don't put too much emphasis on that at all."