Devonté Graham grabbed a Final Four cap, then jumped over Kansas’ bench to hug his mom, Dewanna, and grandmom, Doris, after the final horn sounded in the Jayhawks’ 85-81 overtime victory over Duke in an epic NCAA Tournament Midwest Region championship contest on Sunday night at CenturyLink Center.
Graham, Kansas’ 6-foot-2 senior point guard from Raleigh, N.C., was ecstatic after an elusive Elite Eight victory — one he and fellow senior Svi Mykhailiuk wanted so badly, but had been unable to attain because of losses to Villanova and Oregon the last two seasons.
“It’s hard to describe, man. The last two years, it’s just been heartbreaking,” Graham said of falling one win shy of the Final Four. “You come back and get another shot at it again and you lose again and then you come back and you are in the same game.
“Yesterday during all the media stuff, it was about, ‘How are you going to get over the hump, the last two years, this and that.’ You think about it all the time,” Graham added of season-ending dejection.
When Graham was sure this game was over — after Malik Newman’s three-pointer broke a 78-78 tie with 1:44 left, followed by four straight free throws by Newman to build an 85-78 lead with 9.7 seconds left — he made sure to celebrate properly.
“To get in the same game and win it, it’s a great feeling for the fans and the guys,” Graham said after scoring 11 points, dishing out six assists and grabbing six rebounds while playing all 45 minutes, helping KU assure a spot in the 2018 Final Four.
The Jayhawks will play Villanova on Saturday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The tipoff is scheduled for 40 minutes after the conclusion of the Loyola-Michigan semifinal, which is set for a 5:09 p.m. start.
“I made sure to tell the guys (teammates, as well as his immediate family) that I loved ‘em,” Graham added.
Graham, in a giddy winners' locker room, coined a nickname that figures to stick.
He dubbed sophomore shooting guard Newman “Mr. March” after the Jackson, Miss., combo guard erupted for a career-high 32 points — including KU’s final 13 points.
That’s right. Newman scored all of No. 1 seed KU’s points against No. 2 seed Duke in OT.
“Man, I mean it feels like I’m living in a dream right now,” Newman, the MVP of the Midwest Region, said on the court after slicing off a piece of the net. Graham was also selected to the all-regional team.
“I’m cutting down these nets, I know it’s real, but it feels like a dream,” repeated Newman, who planted a kiss on the regional trophy while on the court.
Newman scored six points in the first half as KU trailed 36-33 at the break. He had 13 points in the second half before scoring 13 in OT.
“It’s like an ocean right now,” Newman said, referring of the width of the basket.
Newman also guarded Duke senior Grayson Allen, who scored 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting. Allen put up the final shot of regulation, a jumper that rolled around, looking as if it might drop but instead missed as the final horn sounded with the game tied at 72-72.
“I thought I made him take a tough shot. When it rolled out, it was new life for us,” Newman said.
KU coach Bill Self, who improved to 3-5 in Elite Eight games at KU, was asked if “time stood still” as Allen’s shot rolled around the cylinder.
“It did,” Self said. “Malik defended it perfectly but he still got it off the backboard and kind of spun around, looked like it had a chance to fall in. Fortunately when it came off it (the clock) was at zero, so there was no time for any rebound.
“We were fortunate, because they put the ball in his hands late to go make some plays and Malik defended it perfectly. I think that stop did give us some confidence, no question, going into overtime guarding them.”
There would probably not have been an overtime if not for senior guard Mykhailiuk, KU’s all-time single-season three-point field goal leader. He sank a three with 25.7 seconds left to tie the game at 72-72, shortly after Duke’s Wendell Carter misfired badly on a jumper that could have given the Blue Devils a two-possession lead with just 40 seconds left.
“Everybody told me to keep shooting,” said Mykhailiuk, who was 3 for 9 from three en route to 11 points, with 10 rebounds. “D-tae (Graham) after the last one I missed said, ‘Man, just keep shooting’ and the next two possessions he passed me the ball. I was thinking about passing it, but Wendell gapped it, so I shot the ball and it went in.”
Self credited the 6-8 Mykhailiuk for a fine job guarding 6-11 Marvin Bagley, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft who scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“Power versus power,” Self joked. “I thought Svi’s defense was unbelievable. I thought Malik’s defense on Grayson was terrific too. For him (Bagley) to only get four offensive boards (KU outrebounded Duke 47-32 and outshot Duke 13 threes in 36 tries to 7 of 29) when we’ve got a guard guarding him. I thought he was terrific. Even though Malik scored a lot of points I don’t know anybody had a better game than what Svi did.”
Lagerald Vick, who maneuvered through the middle of Duke’s zone, scored 14 points — “he kept the ball moving,” Mykhailiuk said — while Udoka Azubuike, who fouled out in regulation, finished with nine points and eight rebounds. Silvio De Sousa had 10 rebounds and four points in 26 huge minutes.
Duke, which hit 42.9 percent of its shots to KU’s 43.5, did outshoot KU at the line, 14 of 18 free throws to KU’s 12 of 15.
The result, a trip to San Antonio, proved gratifying to Self.
KU’s coach, who had been disappointed in the Elite Eight the last two seasons, pumped his fists wildly as the horn sounded.
“These guys (players) know I try not to be too emotional,” said Self, who called the game, “one of the best ones if not the best I’ve ever been a part of.”
“I’m not the most emotional guy, but sometimes you can be overcome with it and that moment I was. I’m happy for our staff and school but I’m more happy for these guys because they’ve sacrificed so much and (not yet) experienced what the very best of college basketball is about (the Final Four).
“In their careers we’ve been the No. 1 overall seed, the No. 2 overall seed and the No. 3 overall seed and haven’t gotten to a Final Four. That means these guys have done so well to put us in a position but we hadn’t kicked the door in yet.”
Self by the way, didn’t address KU’s recent problems in the Elite Eight in pregame talks.
“It’s Kansas and Duke. We didn’t even talk about going to the Final Four. All we talked about was playing Duke,” Self said. “I think playing Duke in that game helped us, playing a school of that caliber and program of that caliber. I would have been proud to have coached in that game even if the outcome was different. But with the way the outcome turned out, it made it as special a game as I’ve ever been a part of with the exception of one.”
That would be the national title victory over Memphis in 2008 … in San Antonio … in the Alamodome, where KU plays Villanova on Saturday.