Frank Mason accepted an inbounds pass from Lagerald Vick a couple strides behind the half-court line and dribbled straight toward Duke defender Matt Jones before pulling up and drilling a 15-footer that propelled No. 7 Kansas to a 77-75 victory over top-ranked Duke in a Champions Classic thriller on Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden.
Senior guard Mason, who scored 17 of his team-leading 21 points the final half, ran into the arms of assistant coach Jerrance Howard — and was hoisted off the ground by Josh Jackson — moments after Jones’ final half-court heave misfired, assuring KU its second victory in the Classic (both against Duke) in six tries.
“The play was to ‘iso’ me,” Mason said of isolating him — freeing him — to find a way to hoist the potential game-winner that dropped with about two ticks left. He had 8.2 seconds to work with on the final possession, KU calling a timeout a full eight seconds after Duke’s Frank Jackson erased a 75-72 deficit by hitting a three with 16 seconds remaining.
“My teammates did a good job spacing the floor out. I took advantage of separation I created and just shot the ball. It felt good when it left my hand,” said the 5-foot-11 Mason, guarded by the 6-5 Jones.
“The only thing I worried about was my balance. I was a little off balance. It’s an unbelievable feeling. I’ve got to thank God and my teammates who put me in position to make the shot and (I) just thank the coaches,” Mason said.
KU coach Bill Self, whose squad finished an eight-day, 10,000-mile road trip with a 1-1 record (the Jayhawks fell to Indiana, 103-99, in overtime Friday in the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu), made sure the Jayhawks were aware the final shot would be Mason’s.
“It was quite a play we called, just to get out of his way. ‘Go shoot it,’ ’’ Self said with a smile. “I don’t know if he’s made game-winners (at KU). He’s made a lot of plays to put games in overtime. He’s a stud.”
Mason’s shot helped avert a potentially disastrous ending. KU led by 12 with 8:03 to play.
“I was definitely comfortable in that situation,” said Mason, who scored 30 points in KU’s loss to Indiana on Friday. “I work on those shots a lot every day. I thank God it went in.”
KU junior Devonté Graham, who had 13 points in 40 minutes (Self said he asked to come out because of cramps with five minutes left, but the coach instructed him to remain and ‘go stand in the corner’) was happy for his backcourt partner, Mason.
“That was the exact play coach drew up,” said Graham, who hit one of six threes on a night the Jayhawks made two of 17 to Duke’s eight of 19. KU hit nine of 19 free throws to Duke’s 21 of 30 and still won. “I was super confident (in Mason). The last three minutes we were wasting time (trying to get the clock to run out), putting it in his (Mason’s) hands. It’s hard enough for guards to guard him much less bigger guys out there.”
Two freshmen also came up big for the Jayhawks. Jackson scored 11 of his 15 points the second half, including nine in a 14-4 run that turned a 39-39 tie into a 53-43 advantage with 10:48 left. He had a left-handed bank shot and three in that surge. Udoka Azubuike (six points, 12 boards, 15 minutes) had four points and senior Mason one helping the Jayhawks build a double digit lead.
Jackson fouled out down the stretch. He had picked up a technical foul for knocking the ball out of a Duke player’s hands the first half.
“I thought Josh was great,” Self said. “He was by far the best player in the game there to start the second half. He can’t let his emotions get the best of him. He’s an emotional guy. He has to contain that better. If he hadn’t gotten the tech he wouldn’t have been in foul trouble. He got in rhythm, put us on his back for a period of time.”
Of Azubuike, Self said: “We are not a great rebounding team by any stretch. He had 12 in 15 minutes (as KU won the board battle 38-29). The other bigs got seven in 30 (minutes). As he gets more and more comfortable I see his minutes going way up.”
Self was mighty happy with the victory, not thinking about what might have been had KU squandered the 12-point lead and become 0-2 for the first time since the 1972-73 season.
“This has been a long trip. Going 0-2 … if you are going to travel 11,000 miles you might as well win one game,” Self said. “We shot it bad, 2-17 from three, nine-of-19 from the line. They (Devils) don’t get transition points and we controlled the glass. It’s not that complicated.”
KU next will meet Siena at 7 p.m. Friday in Allen Fieldhouse.
Coach K’s take
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on the game: “They are really good. Their backcourt, it is a big time backcourt. Those two kids (Mason, Graham) are just so solid and obviously Bill does a great job of coaching all those kids. They played defense hard. But those two guards are terrific guards. It’s our first game, really against that level and they knocked us back (Duke is 2-1). I thought we played really well against a really good team.
“An exciting ending because both teams are winners and the crowd was unbelievable at the Garden in something like this in November. Mason made a big-time play. He was well-guarded and just make a big time play. I think we learned a lot from the game. Both teams were in foul trouble. For us we just don’t have the number when we get into foul trouble (three freshmen were out with injuries), but that’s the way it is. Anyway a really good learning experience.”
Of KU, he said: “They are going to be one of the best teams in the country throughout the whole year, unless God forbid, they have injury. So to play that way when a couple of our veterans didn’t have good games tonight (Grayson Allen had 12 points off 4-15 shooting) and that’s because we played a good team.”
Three Jayhawks on watch list
KU’s Mason, Graham and Jackson on Tuesday were named to the Wooden Award preseason top 50 watch list. Duke’s Grayson Allen, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum also were on the list. Champions Classic teams Kentucky and Michigan State also had players on the list: Edrice Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Kentucky and Miles Bridges of MSU.