Kansas’ basketball players spoke just above a whisper during media interviews in an unusually quiet winners' locker room on Friday night at the Sprint Center.
An 83-67 Big 12 Tournament semifinal victory over Kansas State — the Jayhawks’ third victory over the rival Wildcats this season in as many tries — didn’t have the feel of a usual, lopsided win.
“I think if they had both their star players, they would have beat us if we played like that,” KU senior point guard Devonté Graham said after a victory that propelled the Jayhawks (26-7) into Saturday’s 5 p.m. Big 12 championship for the ninth time in the 15-year Bill Self era. KU has won the title seven times under Self, the last championship attained in 2015-16 after last year’s flop in the quarterfinals.
“It kinda felt weird, without their two best players,” Graham added after scoring 15 points on 3-of-11 shooting and dishing eight assists. He missed 5 of 6 threes on a day KU made 11 of 28 from beyond the arc to Kansas State’s 2 of 13.
K-State forward Dean Wade, who had scored 42 points and grabbed 14 rebounds across a pair of losses to KU during the regular season, was ruled out of the game earlier Friday because of a foot injury. K-State point guard Barry Brown (21 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds over the two previous games vs. KU) was poked in the right eye, on a foul by Graham just 1 minute, 17 seconds into Friday's game, K-State down, 3-0.
Brown returned to the bench after being treated in the locker room, but did not return to the game.
“I don’t feel we had the same energy if we know Dean was playing,” Self said. “Then with Barry … that’s such an unfortunate thing. Obviously that took the wind out of their sails. We didn’t play with great energy at all tonight.
“What’s disappointing to me is we played the second half (like) it was more important to them than us. We were just trying to get through it. That was not a jubilant locker room tonight.”
The Jayhawks were somber for a couple of reasons. KU, which led by 13 points at halftime and 46-30 at 19:44, saw that lead dip to two points (53-51) at 10:17.
“We took our foot off the gas and relaxed. Coach didn’t like that,” Graham said.
Also, the Jayhawks — who received good inside production from Silvio De Sousa (11 boards, eight points) and Mitch Lightfoot (eight points, three boards) and who were trying to make up for the absence of the injured Udoka Azubuike for the second straight game — were nonetheless burned inside by K-State forward Makol Mawien.
Mawien scored a career-high 29 points — 11 more than his previous best mark of 18.
“Obviously they scored in the post," said Lightfoot. "Next man up is our mentality. I didn’t do a great job of doing that. I’ve got to come out and play harder. We can do better.”
Lightfoot and De Sousa had combined for 14 points and 14 boards in Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Oklahoma State.
“I had stupid fouls," Lightfoot added. "I’ve got to bring that energy better.”
The Jayhawks did respond after K-State cut the gap to two. Marcus Garrett (eight points, five boards) missed a three-pointer, but after a Wildcats rebound, Garrett plucked a steal and hit a layup that made it 55-51 KU at 9:55. Graham missed, then De Sousa tipped in the rebound for a 57-51 lead at 9:11. After K-State cut it to four, Malik Newman cashed a three, De Sousa made two free throws and KU led 62-53 at 7:44.
“Marcus shoots an airball, but does something right away to make up for it,” Self said, impressed at Garrett’s quick steal.
“When I missed the three I could have went to the offensive glass," Garrett said. "I don’t know what was going through my mind. I acted like I was going to run back on D, turned around real quick and was able to get a steal.”
KU for the second straight night was led by Newman, who had a career-high 30 points against Oklahoma State on Thursday. He scored 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting against K-State, including 5 of 8 from three.
“Being aggressive, going out and playing hard and having fun,” Newman said of the keys to his resurgence. He had just seven points in KU’s regular-season ending loss to Oklahoma State.
“He’s hoopin’,” Graham said with a smile. “I’m glad he’s hoopin’. In practice before we came up here (for tournament) I told him, ‘Stop passing the ball, just shoot it.’ He’s shooting it.”
Graham, by the way, said he had some sort of bug for the quarterfinals contest, but “felt much better today.”
“Malik is shooting the ball, doing a lot of good things,” Self said. “For us, he’s made shots in this tournament. If he hadn’t made shots, we wouldn’t look very good in the tournament. He’s really carried us these first two games.”
Self in giving an all-important injury update on Azubuike's sprained left knee ligament said in retrospect, “probably the best thing that happened today is we know he's on the mend.”
Azubuike worked out on the bike Friday and Self said: "Hopefully we'll get him on the court in the next two days although that doesn't mean he's going to play."