NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed Kansas came out flat, tentative, perhaps even a bit nervous against No. 16 seed Penn on Thursday afternoon at Intrust Bank Arena.
“You just notice that feeling. It’s the first game. It’s almost like the first day of school," KU guard Malik Newman said after the Jayhawks’ 76-60 victory over the Quakers in a first-round Midwest Regional game.
"You’re walking into class and you’re like, ‘Man, I wonder how my teacher’s going to be?’ Things like that. It’s more being anxious,”
It took some firm yet calming words — and a bunch of points — from senior leader Devonté Graham to steady the ship as the Jayhawks overcame a 10-point first-half deficit and advanced to Saturday’s second-round match against Seton Hall, a 94-83 winner over North Carolina State. That game will tip off at 6:10 p.m. and air on TBS.
“He kept everybody’s head right, telling everybody, ‘The game’s not over. We can still win the game,’” KU junior guard Lagerald Vick said of Graham. The words of encouragement came with 7:59 left, KU down 21-11. “He was talking to us about focusing on defense and the offense will come. He’s the best at that."
KU's win pushed the No. 1 seeds’ all-time record over 16s to 133-0 over the last 33 postseasons.
Graham poured in a game-high 29 points on 9-of-24 shooting with six assists, six rebounds and three steals. He scored six straight points and finished with 12 during a 19-2 run that turned the 10-point deficit into a 30-23 KU lead with 41 seconds left in the half. He scored 15 points during a 21-5 surge that gave the Jayhawks a 33-26 lead to end the opening half.
“I was talking, trying to give the guys confidence,” said Graham, who had 19 points at halftime on 7-of-13 shooting. The Raleigh, N.C., native wound up making nine baskets in a career-high 24 attempts, going 3-of-8 from three-point range and 8-of-9 from the line.
“I just kept telling the guys, ‘Keep shooting. We can't keep missing. Just focus on defense and we'll start making shots,'” Graham said.
KU coach Bill Self also had a message for his squad once the early deficit hit 10 points.
“I said, ‘Keep grinding and the lid will come off here in a second,’’’ Self said. “I remember telling ‘em, ‘Hey guys, we’re down 10. We’ve been awful, but if we win the next four minutes, we’ll go in with the score close at halftime.’ We were able to do a little better than that.
“It was mostly Devonté offensively. But the only way you can outscore a team 15 points in six minutes is if you defend, and I think we did.”
Self was pleased Big 12 player of the year Graham took charge vocally Thursday.
“We’ve had some great moments," Self said. "Frank (Mason) has carried us at times and that stuff, but I don’t know if I’ve consistently seen anybody play better for us than what he has. We had nothing going on. He makes a a deep three in the first half, one that had to be 28-feet.
“I think he’s great,” Self said. “He’s not the best finisher around the rim. That’s not what he does. He’s not like Frank doing that. He’s getting better at that. If he was a better finisher around the rim, I’d be hard pressed to find a serious weakness in his game.”
It was junior shooting guard Vick who scored five points (Newman had two) in a 7-0 run that stretched a 52-48 lead to 11 (59-48) at the 8:31 mark.
“Lagerald is our X-factor,” Self said of Vick, who finished with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He made two of four threes on a day KU hit seven of 17 to Penn’s 11 of 29. The Quakers hit just five of 14 free throws to KU’s 15 of 17.
“When he is good he gives us a whole different element," Self said of Vick. "Today Malik was not at his best (10 points, 5-of-12 shooting) . Svi (Mykhailiuk, 10 points, 3-of-8 shooting) had a bad game. Devonté was good. Lagerald … if he doesn’t show up and play the way he played and be efficient, we may not win that game today. We need him to build off this."
KU led just 60-52 with 7 minutes left when Graham made two free throws. Then, after a basket by AJ Brodeur, who finished with 14 points and nine rebounds for Penn, Graham made a three to give the Jayhawks a 65-54 advantage at 6:11. Vick followed with a dunk off a Mykhailiuk pass and the lead was 13, 67-54.
It was apparent at that point KU would advance to play another day.
“There’s always that pressure like, ‘You can’t lose to a 16-seed,’” Graham said. “So instead of just going out and playing loose, you’re going out and playing not to lose to the 16 seed.
"I feel we came out the first 10 minutes doing that instead of just going out and playing, just thinking too much. That’s the hardest game. Coach always says that’s the hardest game. You can’t win two without winning the first one.”
Self was satisfied with the result.
“When you are playing another game (Saturday), everything is positive," he said. "I’m looking at this way: they played great and we won by 16. If you told me that before the game I promise you I’d have sold out for that."
Self is hoping to have sophomore center Udoka Azubuike available for extended minutes Saturday after the 7-footer’s meager three minutes of action against Penn. Azubuike, who said he could have played more Thursday if needed, had one steal and one foul. Sophomore Mitch Lightfoot was KU’s best big man Thursday with nine points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
“He needed to test it (Thursday),” Self said of Azubuike’s sprained left knee. “Doctors felt that would be good. He needs to be a 15, 20 minute guy on Saturday.”