Kansas defeats Tennessee, 74-68, with Peyton Manning in attendance

©The Kansas City Star

Ed Zurga/Getty Images North America/TNS

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Former University of Tennessee quarterback/future NFL Hall of Famer Peyton Manning was the focal point of pre-game, hanging out on Tennessee’s basketball bench for a full hour prior to the start of the Kansas-Tennessee Big 12/SEC Challenge game on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.

The two-time Super Bowl champ couldn’t do anything to help his alma mater during actual proceedings, however, as KU ultimately stole the show with a 74-68 victory before 16,300 fans who, along with Manning, were part of the 300th straight sellout in the building’s history.

Udoka Azubuike scored 18 points (he hit 4 of 6 free throws late when he was apparent victim of the Hack-a-Doke strategy), and grabbed 11 rebounds with four blocks as KU won its first game without suspended bigs David McCormack (two games) and Silvio De Sousa (12 games).

Azuibuike had picked up his fourth foul with 8 minutes, 25 seconds left and KU up eight points, returning with 4:27 left and KU up three. He immediately hit 3 of 4 free throws to up the lead to 69-63. He hit 1 of 2 at 1:51 to make it 70-66.

Devon Dotson contributed 22 points and seven assists for KU in a game witnessed by Manning, who was gracious to those who approached him before the game. The Vols were led by Yves Pons, who had a career-high 24 points and seven boards, Jordan Bowden, who had 19 points and John Fulkerson who contributed 15 points.

“It’s my first time here,” Manning said before the game. “I love the history of the game and am really happy to be here. Like I told Coach (Bill) Self, it’s kind of nice, everybody patting you on the back.”

Of the Kansas City Chiefs’ chances in the Super Bowl, Manning, one of Tennessee’s most famous alums, said: “Patrick Mahomes is the X-factor — great young quarterback. I’m sure it’ll be a great game.”

The No. 3-ranked Jayhawks (16-3) defeated the Vols (12-7) for the second straight season. KU claimed an overtime win over Tennessee last November in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn.

Ochai Agbaji scored 18 points as KU improved to 5-2 all-time in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Tennessee fell to 4-2 in the Challenge. Tennessee did not take part in the inaugural event.

KU led by as many as 13 points (55-42) with 14:11 left, but the Vols with Azubuike on the bench with his fourth foul at 8:25 and KU up eight points, managed to rally to cut the gap to three at 66-63 at 4:27.

KU used a 6-0 run in the final two minutes of the first half to grab a 37-30 lead at halftime. The Jayhawks also had a pivotal 12-0 surge in the half to turn a 26-19 deficit into a 31-26 lead.

Azubuike had nine points and five boards and Dotson eight points, five assists and two steals the first half. Agbaji had seven points.

Tennessee led by as many as seven in the half — margins of 20-13 and 26-19. Pons scored 12 points with four boards in the first half.

The Jayhawks, who started McCormack next to Azubuike in 17 of the first 18 games and De Sousa in one contest, have looked much better in their four-guard lineup than three guards with two bigs, Self said recently.

“Stats, analytics prove that to be the case. Everybody would agree we are so much better with four guards out there, so much better on both ends. We’re better, more comfortable matching up that way,” Self said.

KU will next meet Oklahoma State at 8 p.m., Monday in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Kansas' Udoka Azubuike (35) goes up for a basket between Tennessee's Uros Plavsic and Yves Pons, right, in the first half at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. Kansas won, 74-68. - Ed Zurga/Getty Images North America/TNS
Former NFL quarterback Payton Manning attends a basketball game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. - Ed Zurga/Getty Images North America/TNS