OKLAHOMA CITY (Ticker) -- Thanks to Keith Langford and Nick Collison, Kansas avoided what would have been an embarrassing exit from the NCAA Tournament.
With the rest of their teammates struggling, Langford and Collison picked up the slack by carrying the load in the second half as the second-seeded Jayhawks edged 15th-seeded Utah State, 64-61, in a West Region first-round game.
A heavy favorite, the Jayhawks (26-7) never trailed but had to sweat for the second straight year in the opening round. Last season as a top seed, the Jayhawks trailed No. 16 Holy Cross at halftime before pulling away.
Langford and Collison helped the Jayhawks maintain the lead in the second half in this one, combining for 22 of their club's 30 points. Langford finished with 22 points and Collison added 18.
"I think in the Holy Cross game last year we had to fight back because we were down," Langford said. "I think we were down six or seven. This time I felt like we were in more control of the game. We made a couple of dumb plays down the stretch, but we had the game where we wanted. If it wasn't for a couple of dumb plays, we win by seven instead of three."
Collison said he expected a tough game.
"We really knew coming in that Utah State had a good team and it wasn't going to be easy," he said. "We're just happy with the win.
"I felt like coming into the game they were as talented as a lot of teams in our league and we won ugly against a lot of teams in our league. So we're not as relieved as people might think and we might not feel like we got as lucky as people might think. I think we feel we played a pretty good team and won. We get to go and play, that's the important thing."
"Needless to say, I think we're very fortunate," Kansas coach Roy Williams said. "Keith was important inside. Nick and Keith were very big for us. Like Keith said, we were trying to play a good Utah State team, not a 15th-seeded Utah State team, or whatever."
Kansas will meet Arizona State in the second round on Saturday.
"We have no chance, no hope, if we don't play better Saturday," Williams added.
Despite the big games by the Jayhawks' duo, the Aggies (24-9) hung tough as they nearly overcame a 13-point first-half deficit. They also tried to battle back from a nine-point deficit with just over 2 1/2 minutes left.
Trailing 64-61, the Aggies had a chance to send the game into overtime but Desmond Penigar and Cardell Butler misfired on 3-pointers in the final 10.3 seconds. Penigar missed badly from the top of the key and Butler's attempt from the right side was bounced off the rim as time expired.
"The play was designed for Desmond," Butler said. "The ball got loose some how and Spencer (Nelson) found me. I felt like I had a good look. When it left my hand, I was 100 percent sure it was good."
Penigar finished with 25 points and Nelson 10 as the Aggies failed in a bid to become the fifth No. 15 seed to upset a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"Going into the game, we thought we were going to win," Penigar said. "We planned it right. We watched film on them and we knew what we had to do to win the game. We didn't want to just come up to the tournament and just show up and just be one of the games for Kansas to move on. We should have won the game."
Utah State got as close as one point twice and as close as two on six occasions in the second half but never could get the lead.
"Like I told our players, I am proud of them, the game plan, and the way that they executed it," Utah State coach Steve Morrill said. "You never want to be satisfied with coming close. If only we could have gone ahead at some point in the game, we could have put the pressure on them."
The Aggies pulled within two points for the final time at 55-53 with 3:52 to play on Mark Brown's runner. Each team came up empty on their next possessions before Langford came up with a big play.
Off a pass from Hinrich, Langford converted a three-point play to make it 58-53 with 3:27 left. Collison and Kirk Hinrich scored on the next two trips for the Jayhawks, pushing the lead to 62-53 with 2:35 to play.
Hinrich's basket accounted for his only points of the second half. He finished with just eight points, nearly 10 below his average.
"I just struggled to get any open looks," said Hinrich, who went 3-of-7 from the field. "I got out of rhythm because I hadn't taken a shot in so long. I passed up a couple that I should have shot. Because of the defense, I probably wasn't as active as I should have been. I was just struggling to get a good look."
With the Aggies controlling the tempo with a 2-3 zone defense, the Jayhawks had to play patiently offensively and they were effective.
Collison and Langford did the majority of their work around the basket, helping the Jayhawks amass a 46-22 edge in points in the paint. Kansas attempted just six 3-pointers, making two.
"They did a good job," Collison said. "They were going to try to slow us down. They really pressured the outside to make it hard to attack and get anything going. They played well. We were a lot better when we could run and we were doing that when we got defensive stops. So the key was getting enough stops to win."
By working for easier baskets, the Jayhawks shot a healthy 58 percent (14-of-24) in the second half. They shot 55 percent (28-of-51) overall and went just 6-of-11 from the free thow line.
Utah State shot just 41 percent (23-of-56) but was able to hang in by garnering a 32-27 rebounding advantage, including a 13-7 edge on the offensive boards.
Early on, the Jayhawks looked like they would have an easy time. They scored the game's first six points and held a 17-8 lead less than six minutes into the contest on a layup by Langford.
The lead grew to as many as 13 on two occasions, the last time at 32-19 with 5:21 left in the first half when Collison scored inside.
But Ronnie Ross sank a 3-pointer and Penigar had consecutive baskets to fuel an 11-2 run to close the half that pulled the Aggies within 34-30.
"We matched their intensity from the beginning," Butler said. "We were able to guard them and slow down their transition. That was key. We had the jitters at first because of the environment ... but eventually we settled down and made it a good ballgame."