The Kansas offense was a worn-out baseball pitcher, 110 pitches in, and all out of junk to throw.
This was late in a back-and-forth game against TCU on Saturday night at Schollmaier Arena. KU coach Bill Self kept thrusting his right hand upward, five fingers extended.
The Horned Frogs knew the play that was coming. Self didn’t care.
There would be no more tricks on this night. No off-speed pitches or “fooled-you” plays or gimmicks to take down TCU during a crucial game in the conference race.
Self, from a few feet away on the sideline, was calling for the fastball. No frills. Nothing cute. Give me everything you’ve got.
Time and again, his beleaguered player came through. Devonté Graham, after getting a simple ball screen from teammate Mitch Lightfoot, drove and drove and drove … and in the end lifted KU to an 88-84 victory.
“He showed some (marbles) tonight,” Self said. “Good god.”
Graham played every second of the second half, and 38 minutes in all. He took a hard fall on his tailbone on one drive, took a hip shiver on another, and then in the final seconds, was tackled from behind before tumbling on his right elbow.
None of that affected him. He made his final eight free throws in crunch time, scored 28 points in all and “willed” KU to victory — according to Self — on a night when the offense desperately needed him.
“We can’t play without him right now,” Self said of Graham.
This was a new game plan for KU. The “fastball” offense? That was something that Self called frequently last year, when national player of the year Frank Mason often delivered with an innate ability to get by defenders while finishing at the rim.
That’s not Graham’s specialty. He’s more of a drive-to-kick guy, making it tougher for him to produce like Mason on those particular ball-screen plays.
That was, until Saturday. Graham, when his coach and team needed him, put on a convincing Mason impression while shooting a career-high 15 free throws.
But even with Graham’s heroics, this was only the equivalent of pushing the boogeyman back into the closet with the door still open.
Self kept calling Graham’s number down the stretch for a simple reason: Teammates Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick were no-shows. Neither guard showed any offensive aggressiveness, as they combined for six field goal attempts in their combined 41 minutes.
Both have separate issues at the moment. Self admits Newman is “struggling,” as he still appears to be trying to figure out his role on this offense and team. Vick, meanwhile, seems to take himself out of games with passivity even when Self and other coaches urge him to attack.
In the end, KU will be more than pleased to walk away with Saturday’s result. The Jayhawks, still shorthanded without NCAA rulings on Billy Preston or Silvio De Sousa, gutted out the type of road victory that has been crucial during their 13-year conference streak.
Graham can’t do this every night, though, as was obvious 30 minutes after the game. As he walked back onto the court, looking to meet up with some family, assistant coach Jerrance Howard approached him with a smile.
“You wouldn’t let us lose today!” the coach said, going up for a side bump.
Graham, in completing the celebratory leap, could only lift himself a few inches off the floor.
It wasn’t a surprise. The Jayhawks’ closer didn’t have much left.