The prayer session took place in Malik Newman’s room at the Omaha Marriott Downtown, just a few hours before the biggest game of Devonté Graham’s life.
His mother, Dewanna King, was there, as was his grandmother, Doris. Lagerald Vick’s parents came by to take part too.
When it was over, Graham said the words again — ones he’d spoken before but promised this time were true.
They had to be. The prayer session was one person short.
Playing through it
Kansas’ 85-81 overtime victory over Duke on Sunday was not the best game of KU guard Devonté Graham’s career. Not by a long shot.
He still had the ball — as one would expect — when the Jayhawks came through with the most important play of the season.
With 30 seconds left in regulation and KU trailing by three, Graham went behind his back with a transition dribble, then was bumped briefly by Duke’s Trevon Duval.
He played through it. After a twirl, he flung a desperation pass to teammate Svi Mykhailiuk on the wing, who took one dribble before putting up the game-tying shot.
It plunged softly off the back of the rim before falling through the net.
“I actually tried to get the foul call when he bumped me, but I’m glad he didn’t call it,” Graham said. “I just saw him open and gave it to him.”
It all looked eerily familiar — history repeating itself almost a decade into the future.
Just a few feet away — in the first row behind the bench — former KU guard Sherron Collins grabbed both hands to the bill of his cap as Mykhailiuk’s shot went in, then flexed as the KU fans celebrated around him.
It was Collins, in the 2008 national championship game, who was slightly brushed by Memphis’ Derrick Rose before he shoveled the ball to Mario Chalmers, who hit a game-saving three in the final seconds of regulation of KU’s 75-68 overtime win over Memphis.
“We’re good with not getting calls at the end of the game,” a smiling Collins said afterward. “Let’s keep it that way.”
The long journey
When the final buzzer sounded, Graham grabbed a white Final Four hat before leaping over his team’s bench.
He found his mother and grandmother in the front row, hugging and crying while repeating three words: “We did it.”
It’s been a long journey for Graham to KU. His mother gave birth to him when she was 14, meaning she and Graham’s grandmother made sacrifices early on to ensure he was taken care of. Graham also originally signed with Appalachian State, and after a long battle to get out of that commitment — that included a one-year foray to prep school — he finally received his release after the school changed coaches.
The road eventually led to KU, though even that hadn’t always gone as scripted. Graham had been a part of consecutive losses in the Elite Eight, which included an 0-for-7 shooting performance in last year’s defeat against Oregon.
Graham briefly considered turning pro before calling coach Bill Self to say he was returning. There was unfinished business left in Lawrence.
He knew, with another year, he could get better. He also could get his college diploma.
There was another thought, though.
After just missing his previous two years, how cool would it be to make a Final Four?
Dewanna King tries to stick to non-basketball talk, but she couldn’t help herself this time.
It was Saturday night at the Marriott, and King had to ask her son a question.
"Are you nervous?"
King laughed Sunday when retelling his response.
“He told me I was acting like the reporters,” she said, her voice scratchy because of the screaming she’d just done.
Graham would be fine Sunday. And he'd also deliver on that earlier promise.
Graham had scored 11 points on 4-for-10 shooting in 45 minutes. Afterward, he’d hugged teammates like Clay Young and Mykhailiuk and told them he loved them.
Then, as he returned to a cramped locker room with reporters crowding around him, he explained why this moment was so special.
Earlier that day, in Newman’s hotel room, he repeated a message to his mom and grandma: He was going to take them to the Final Four. He’d said the same thing in previous years, even when the Jayhawks had come up a game short.
This time, he was playing for someone else, though. Because of finances, Graham’s sister, Shamaria, couldn’t make it to Sunday’s game in Omaha.
“I told her, ‘I’m going to make sure you’ll be able to get there,’” Graham said.
The guard smiled. He and his teammates had done it. The family would be together again in Texas this week.
“Definitely the best moment of my career,” Graham said. “Probably for them, too. This is what we’ve been working for for the last four years.”
Dewanna King, in the moments after, thought back to her pregame tradition.
Before each contest, she sends her son a text, making it the same each time.
That went through again Sunday. Before the biggest win of Graham’s career, King typed out the eight words she always has: “Pray, and ask God for what you want.”
Those words seemed especially fitting Sunday.
“He’s fulfilled those dreams,” King said. “We’re finally on the road to the Final Four.”