Big 12 preseason player of the year Devonté Graham glared at Missouri’s bench after hitting one three-pointer.
He grinned at former Kansas guard Sherron Collins, who leapt out of his courtside Sprint Center seat, after another.
Finally, Graham, heir apparent to Frank Mason as the Jayhawks’ go-to guy in 2017-18, raised both arms and pumped his right fist in a circular motion with 5 seconds left in KU’s 93-87 exhibition victory over Missouri on Sunday. The game, contested before 18,951 fans, helped raise at least $1.8 million for hurricane relief.
“Definitely,” said Graham, a 6-foot-2 point guard from Raleigh, N.C., when asked if the atmosphere felt “different” from a normal exhibition contest. “In warmups, you could tell how much juice there was in the building.
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“It was a great atmosphere to play in.”
Graham scored a game-high 25 points, grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds and also dished five assists against four turnovers with two steals in 35 minutes. He hit four threes and scored 14 of KU’s first 21 points as the Jayhawks led 21-19 eight minutes into the game. He had 17 points at halftime on 6 of 9 shooting — 5 of 8 from three. Despite Graham’s efforts, KU trailed, 44-40, at the break.
“You could say they made shots,” KU coach Bill Self said of the Tigers, who hit 9 of 19 threes the first half and 14 of 32 overall to KU’s 8 of 25, “but if it wasn’t for Devonté early, we’re down double figures the first half.”
Graham — he was so impressive that MU coach Cuonzo Martin merely shook his head and smiled when Graham’s name was mentioned in the interview room after the game — finished 7 of 15 from the field, 6 of 13 from three and 5 of 6 from the line.
He and sophomore guard Malik Newman (17 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) scored five points apiece in a 26-7 run that turned a 59-57 second-half deficit into a 83-66 lead with 6 minutes to play.
Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike scored eight points in that stretch, which finally opened a huge 17-point lead for KU. The 7-foot Azubuike also had four blocks the final half.
“I was just being aggressive offensively and defensively, getting into a bit of a rhythm and comfort zone then the big fella started going to work. It really got us going,” Graham said.
Azubuike finished with 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting. He had five points on 2-of-4 shooting with three rebounds the first half; 11 points on 5-of-5 marksmanship in the final half. He missed 4 of 6 free throws and had four rebounds on a night MU outboarded KU 41-37.
“I think we want to play inside/out,” Graham said. “We ran a couple plays early to try to get him (Azubuike) going, to get him fouled. They did a good job of trying to keep us from getting him the ball and getting the ball out of my hands. He got going the second half so we tried to keep feeding him.”
Self said in the first half, “I didn’t think he (Azubuike) played with athletic ability. He was hesitant. I thought the second half he went without hesitation. That was probably the best thing for him offensively.”
Azubuike at times appeared a bit fatigued in his 27-minute performance, probably not shocking considering it was just the first of three exhibition games this preseason.
“Pretty much the second half my teammates, my coaching staff too, emphasized me being more aggressive,” Azubuike said. “I went out there, tried to post up, do the best I can to make my team win.”
The Tigers’ three freshmen frontcourt players had big games. Michael Porter Jr. scored 21 points and grabbed eight boards with two blocks in 23 minutes. His brother Jontay had 12 rebounds, nine points and three steals in 21 minutes. Jeremiah Tilmon scored 10 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting with four boards and a block.
KU bigs Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot went for 12 and four points respectively. Lightfoot had three blocks and two boards, while Preston had four boards.
“I did think we competed in the second half, which was the most positive thing,” Self said.
The Jayhawks will next meet Pittsburg State, coached by Martin’s predecessor, Kim Anderson, at 7 p.m. Oct. 31 at Allen Fieldhouse.
“It felt good to be back on the court,” said Graham, assessing the performance. “We’ve been in practice a couple weeks now just beating up on each other. It felt good to finally be able to play against somebody else, see what we’ve been working on and things we need to improve.”