KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jeff Withey scored 17 points and top-seeded Kansas struggled to put away scrappy Western Kentucky in a 64-57 victory Friday night, avoiding what would have been the biggest upset on a day full of them in the NCAA Tournament.
The Jayhawks (30-5), flummoxed by the Hilltoppers’ full-court pressure, trailed, 31-30, at halftime. Kansas eventually built an 11-point lead, but couldn’t put Western Kentucky away until Ben McLemore’s two foul shots with 11 seconds left in the game.
McLemore and Travis Releford scored 11 points each for the Jayhawks, who wearily advanced to play No. 8 seed North Carolina and former coach Roy Williams in the South Regional on Sunday.
‘‘We’re pleased we won, and didn’t play our best by any stretch,’’ Kansas coach Bill Self said. ‘‘They controlled the game for the most part. We’re happy to advance, but certainly not pleased with how we played.’’
Jamal Crook scored 13 points for the Hilltoppers (20-16), who would have made history by becoming the first No. 16 seed to upend a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Alas, the undersized team in red couldn’t hang tough with the bigger blue bloods down the stretch, allowing Kansas to reach 30 wins for the fourth straight season — the first time that’s happened in Division 1 men’s basketball, after Memphis was forced to vacate the 2008 season.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 16 seeds are winless against No. 1 seeds in 116 games.
Western Kentucky, though, spent the first half pinning Kansas against the ropes.
George Fant was able to use his quickness against the bigger Withey in the paint, and the Hilltoppers slowly built a 20-16 lead. Kansas finally pulled ahead when Elijah Johnson finished off a 3-point play that made it 28-27 with 90 seconds left, but a pair of baskets by Price gave the Hilltoppers a 31-30 lead at the break.
The Jayhawks seized the lead again early in the second half when Kevin Young followed his own miss by grabbing the rebound and throwing down a reverse jam, and then Releford scored off a nifty feed from McLemore.
In the closing minutes Western Kentucky started whittling into the lead. A 3-pointer by Crook made it 59-55 with 25.4 seconds left on the clock.
The Jayhawks answered with free throws from Naadir Tharpe and McLemore.