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Kansas beats Tennessee in first game since brawl

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — The eyes of the college basketball world on Saturday were once again focused on Kansas.

On this afternoon, at least, the Jayhawks put their best — and biggest — foot forward.

KU overcame a shaky start and an even more perilous finish to earn a 74-68 home victory over Tennessee, securing a win in the nationally televised Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup. Udoka Azubuike, the Jayhawks’ lone frontcourt player in the tilt, was plagued by foul trouble but finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots and a game-best plus-minus of plus-19 in just 27 minutes.

Azubuike notched two big-time blocks in the game’s final minute to help preserve what was then a five-point lead. Running back on offense after the second rejection, Azubuike delighted a rocking 300th straight sellout crowd at Allen Fieldhouse by delivering a finger wag gesture in the direction of the fans.

Later asked about the victory and specifically about the celebratory gesture, Azubuike offered a sheepish response.

“It was fun,” he said plainly. “It was fun.”

More: Kansas’ Silvio De Sousa apologizes for role in brawl with Kansas State: ‘I am truly embarrassed’

A few moments of scattered chuckles and awkward silence passed before sophomore Devon Dotson, who finished with team-highs of 22 points and seven assists, leaned in and played the role of postgame point guard.

“Keep going,” Dotson whispered, smiling. “Keep going!”

Azubuike obliged.

“I mean, it was a great game,” Azubuike continued. “Kind of the team, we needed a stop, so I was glad I got one, I was able to get that stop. I just kind of wanted to pump the team up and pump my teammates up.”

Azubuike did plenty of that Saturday for the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks (16-3), though not out of the gate.

KU’s lone big with forwards Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack suspended, Azubuike picked up his second foul and went to the KU bench with 10:39 left in the opening period. Forced to play a five-guard lineup, the Jayhawk defense unraveled — KU surrendered a 7-for-7 shooting stretch for the Volunteers (12-7), who rallied from a three-point deficit to take a 26-19 lead.

But Bill Self gambled, and it paid off.

Self reinserted Azubuike into the lineup with 5:48 left in the frame, and the 7-footer made an immediate impact, throwing down a dunk on his first possession back. That conversion kick-started a 12-0 run that saw the home squad take a 31-26 lead, with Azubuike notching seven points in that rally. Azubuike departed to a hearty ovation with 1:34 left before halftime, where KU held a 37-30 lead.

KU built a 13-point lead in the first six minutes of the second half, but it was Tennessee’s turn to rally. 

Rick Barnes’ crew cut its deficit to four on a Yves Pons dunk with 10:35 left, and the Volunteers appeared to be in fantastic shape when Azubuike picked up his fourth foul with 8:25 remaining. The careless reach-in infraction sent the sent the center to the bench with the Jayhawks up six, and three straight point-blank makes for the Volunteers made it a one-possession game, 66-63.

Azubuike re-entered after a KU timeout, and the move worked — though the same couldn’t be said of Barnes’ decision to deploy “Poke-a-Doke,” the strategy of intentionally fouling Azubuike to send the career 39.8% free-throw shooter to the stripe.

Azubuike went 2 for 2 to send the home crowd into a frenzy, then went 1 for 2 after what appeared to be an unintentional foul to deliver a 69-63 lead with 3:34 left.

“Very subtly, that may have been the biggest play of the game,” Self said of Azubuike’s first two makes, “because it gave him confidence after he made those two to go knock a couple more down.”

Azubuike finished 6 for 11 from the free-throw line, a clip Self said the team would’ve sold out for a month ago. Now? Self believes Azubuike has the potential to be a 60-to-70 percent shooter from the stripe for the rest of his final collegiate season.

“Like I told you, I’m not worried about my free throws. It’s all my routine. It’s just me going through my routine and making it,” Azubuike said. “There’s no pressure on me making free throws. I know it’s a big topic for y’all, the media and stuff, but it’s not really a big topic. It’s going out there and just doing my routine and just knocking it down.

“If it goes in it goes in. If not, it’s next play.”

Barnes, who said he “really respect(s)” Azubuike for the year-to-year improvement he’s seen from the center since last year’s clash between these teams, said he isn’t particularly fond of deploying the intentional foul strategy but added it’s something he’ll do when necessary.

“I don’t know if I’d call it Hack-a-Shaq. I’d call it playing the percentages, ’cause he’s not going to miss those (dunks),” Barnes said. “I mean, he’ll put you and the ball in the basket. …

“Those are big free throws, and you know what? Maybe we made him get better tonight.”

Again, though, Tennessee didn’t go away.

A free-throw make and a John Fulkerson jumper trimmed the deficit back to three with 2:04 left. But Azubuike again went 1 for 2 from the line, and with 1:20 left, he intercepted a pass into the paint to secure a much-needed steal. Dotson went 1 for 2 from the line on KU’s next possession to put KU back up five, 71-66, with 55 seconds left.

That’s when Azubuike channeled his inner Dikembe Mutombo. He blocked Fulkerson’s jumper with 44 seconds left, and after a Tennessee offensive rebound, Azubuike blocked Pons’ try in the paint.

“Overall, I mean, it’s very obvious we’re not the same team with him not in the game,” Self said of Azubuike. “We need him in the game.”

On his way back up the court, Azubuike delivered the finger wag gesture, turning up the volume on an already rocking atmosphere.

Dotson hit two free throws with 31 seconds left, and a Jordan Bowden layup accounted for Tennessee’s final points. KU gave the game its final score on a free throw from Ochai Agbaji, who was the Jayhawks’ other double-figure scorer (16 points).

“Having him in there when he gets the angle, I mean, it’s pretty much two points,” Agbaji said of Azubuike. “So when we look for that and he’s working down there and we find him, it’s always good.”

Pons finished with a game-high 24 points, while Bowden had 19, all in the second half. Fulkerson’s 15 rounded out the Volunteers’ double-figure scorers.

KU’s season continues with a Monday clash with Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla., the final game of McCormack’s suspension. De Sousa isn’t eligible to return until the Jayhawks’ regular-season finale March 7 at Texas Tech.

“We did enough good things to win, but certainly it wasn’t the prettiest,” Self said of Saturday’s outcome. “I’m not leaving out of here elated in any other way other than we just won the game.”

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Kobe Bryant’s Public Memorial Service Is Today

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LOS ANGELES — For the bulk of his career with the Lakers, Kobe Bryant turned Staples Center into his stage, fashioning basketball into performance art. He soared and scowled, endearing himself to fans who celebrated his competitive drive. It is not often that an athlete becomes synonymous with an arena, but Staples Center seemed to belong to Bryant in a singular way.

“He helped build this arena,” said Lee Zeidman, the president of Staples Center since it opened in 1999.

In the wake of Bryant’s death last month, there was some discussion among family members, including his wife, Vanessa, and city officials about the site of a public memorial service, Zeidman said. An outdoor venue like the Rose Bowl, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or Dodger Stadium would have been able to accommodate the most people.

“A lot of people were weighing in,” Zeidman said in an interview last week. “But for the men and women who work at Staples Center, we felt that this was the place to do it. He put five championship banners on the walls here. Both of his numbers are retired here. And we’re very proud and humbled that Vanessa chose to do it here.”

But Bryant had a unique relationship with Staples Center as the arena’s most magnetic draw for 17 consecutive years — and he formed ties to many who still work there.

Andy Bernstein, the longtime photographer for the Lakers who collaborated with Bryant on Bryant’s 2018 book, “The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” was invited to attend Monday’s event as a guest. But Bernstein declined so he could work at the event in his usual role, as a photographer. It was what Bryant would have wanted him to do, he said.

“Part of the ‘Mamba mentality’ was strength,” Bernstein said in a telephone interview. “The strength to overcome. The strength to get through stuff. I think about Kobe and what he would be saying in this moment. He would be saying, ‘You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’”

Entering the weekend, Zeidman said the list of invited guests, speakers and performers was still “very fluid.” The Lakers and the Bryant family were coordinating the program, Zeidman said, and few details had been disclosed. Zeidman said he was not privy to many of them.

“There’s been virtually no information outside of instructions to save all of our dressing rooms,” he said.

A number of celebrities and athletes are expected to be on hand, including members of the Lakers and the Clippers, and former N.B.A. stars like Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s career leading scorer. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks are among the current players who have said they will attend, along with Luke Walton, a Lakers teammate of Bryant’s who now coaches the Sacramento Kings.

Sabrina Ionescu, a guard for the University of Oregon women’s basketball team, told the Pac-12 Network that she was among those who had been invited to speak. Ionescu had grown close to Bryant, a vocal advocate for women’s sports in recent years, and to Gianna, who had dreamed of playing in the W.N.B.A.

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Coronavirus Spreads to Soccer’s Schedule, Closing Stadiums and Stranding Teams

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In China, officials struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus have delayed the start of the soccer season for months, and at least one top-division team has been marooned in the Middle East for weeks, unable to return from a preseason training camp.

In South Korea, fans attending matches earlier this month were checked for fever before being allowed inside stadiums, and masks were ubiquitous in the stands in Japan recently — until Tuesday, when officials announced that there will be no league play until at least mid-March.

But the effects of the coronavirus on the global soccer calendar have crossed borders, too. Asia’s soccer confederation announced three weeks ago that the matches in its biggest club championship involving Chinese teams would not be played for several months, and Vietnam has banned the hosting of sporting events of any kind this month, forcing even more games to be rescheduled.

Now the disruption has spread to Europe.

In Italy, where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases neared 300 on Tuesday, at least one game — the second leg of a knockout tie on Thursday between Internazionale of Milan and Ludogorets of Bulgaria in the Europa League — is to be played behind closed doors as the authorities continue to restrict public gatherings in the northern region of Lombardy.

The decision on Tuesday to play the game without spectators came after the Italian authorities postponed four league games last weekend.

Inter Milan, a top contender for the Italian league title, said the decision was a result of several days of talks with health officials in Lombardy and European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, over how to stage the game, which could not be canceled because of the lack of alternate dates.

The game against Ludogorets is believed to be the first time a European soccer match has had to be played behind closed doors because of a health crisis. Usually such conditions are imposed on teams as a punishment for fan violence or racist episodes.

Inter, which is owned by a Chinese company, had already been taking steps to minimize the risks to its staff members from the virus. Nonessential employees have been told to work from home, and the club has purchased stocks of face masks and hand sanitizer for the team’s headquarters.

The decision to go ahead with Thursday’s match at Milan’s cavernous San Siro stadium was confirmed on Tuesday. Inter, which has an even bigger game on Sunday, when it is scheduled to visit first-place Juventus, was one of the four Italian clubs that postponed a match in the country’s top league last weekend.

Other European countries are now contemplating similar possibilities. On Tuesday, the French club Olympique Lyonnais said in a statement that it had “taken note” of the French authorities’ decision to let its match against Juventus in the Champions League proceed “in its initial configuration” on Wednesday night. Up to 3,000 fans of Juventus, a team based in the northern Italian city of Turin, are expected for the game, which is sold out.

Asked about the match, Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, told RTL radio that the authorities were being vigilant but that there were currently “no scientific and medical arguments” justifying the cancellation of large events in France.

“Should we stop Fashion Week?” Véran said. “Should we stop games? Should we close universities? The answer is no.”

He added, “We are not closing the borders because we do not know how to, but because it would make no sense at this stage.”

Health officials and governments in Asia, where sports schedules have been most affected since the virus first started to spread, are facing a far different reality.

When Afshin Ghotbi, the Iranian-American coach of the Chinese team Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, was thrown into the air by his soccer players in early November after clinching promotion to the Chinese Super League, he had no inkling that almost four months later, he and his squad would still be waiting for the new season to begin.

Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, whose home city of 11 million is about 165 miles southwest of Beijing, should have kicked off its new campaign last weekend. But instead of taking on Chinese superclubs like Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG in front of 40,000 fans, Ghotbi’s team is playing preseason games in empty stadiums in Abu Dhabi, its base for five weeks and counting.

Team officials said that they did not expect to play competitive soccer until at least May or even be allowed to return to China before mid-March.

“It is a challenge for the players,” Ghotbi said. “They are away from their families and psychologically they feel very helpless.”

Ghotbi, a former head coach of Iran’s national team, has experience in global events disrupting sports schedules. He was in charge of the Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse in 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami caused the Japanese league’s season to be delayed for six weeks.

“Back then, we also tried to use the football team as a source of inspiration and hope,” Ghotbi said. “And we are trying to do the same now through banners in the stadiums we play and through social media, though it is different as we are outside China.”

To keep his players sharp physically and mentally, he and his coaches have created a points system for intrateam activities, among other distractions. “Even changing the hotel can make a difference,” he said.

Similar challenges are now being faced across East Asia. South Korea, where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases neared 1,000 on Tuesday, postponed the start of its domestic season indefinitely on Monday. The next day, Japan’s J. League announced a delay of three weeks.

Individual qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics have already been moved; in one extreme example, the China women’s soccer team was quarantined inside an Australian hotel, forced to exercise and train in hallways, before it was allowed to play a series of Olympic qualifying games.



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Shannon Sharpe is excited to see Zion vs LeBron faceoff tonight | NBA | UNDISPUTED

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Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe look ahead to New Orleans Pelicans vs Los Angeles Lakers tonight. Hear why Skip and Shannon are excited for the matchup between LeBron James and Zion Williamson.

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Shannon Sharpe is excited to see Zion vs LeBron faceoff tonight | NBA | UNDISPUTED

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