OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — For the third year in a row, Kansas made it through the Sweet 16 — although not before Clemson tried its hardest to add another wild chapter to an already unbelievable tournament.
The top-seeded Jayhawks brought at least a temporary halt to the insanity of this March, withstanding a ferocious rally by fifth-seeded Clemson on Friday for a too-close-for-comfort, 80-76 victory.
Malik Newman led the Jayhawks (30-7) with 17 points in a one-time runaway that got much closer and, quite frankly, won’t mean much to KU fans if their team can’t finish the job in the Midwest Region final Sunday. The Jayhawks will play Duke in what will be the nation’s only 1 vs. 2 regional final; the Blue Devils beat Syracuse 69-65.
As a top seed the last two seasons, Kansas made it through the regional semifinals, only to flop a game shy of the Final Four both times. In fact, this marks the sixth time Bill Self’s team has been seeded first since KU won it all in 2008; the Jayhawks haven’t made the Final Four one of those times.
“I think about it all the time. I just told the guys in the locker room…this year, we’ve got to get over the hump,” said senior Devonte’ Graham, who had 16 points.
Still, it could’ve ended on Friday — in horrifying fashion — after Clemson stormed back from a 20-point deficit that stunned a crowd filled mostly with fans from Lawrence and surrounding areas, which are only a few hours from Omaha.
“We just kind of played not to lose down the stretch,” Self said.
Clemson trailed 62-42, but climbed to within six with 2:27 left. Graham’s offensive rebound after a Svi Mykhailiuk miss at the 1:57 mark allowed the Jayhawks to run almost a minute off the clock.
Kansas didn’t score after Graham’s rebound, and the Tigers got the next board for a chance to cut it to a one-possession game. But Shelton Mitchell and Gabe DeVoe each missed from beyond the arc. From there, Kansas overcame a dogged Clemson press just long enough to ensure that the Tigers couldn’t pull any closer until the tail end.
DeVoe had a career-high 31 for Clemson (25-10), which couldn’t replicate the magic it showed in beating Auburn by 31 to reach its first Sweet 16 in 21 years.
“We didn’t have our best game. Sometimes that’s not easy to keep fighting like that,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
Clemson had scored five straight points to cut KU’s lead to 35-27 late in the first half when Elijah Thomas, after a review, was called for a flagrant foul. Silvio De Sousa knocked down the free throws, Lagerald Vick buried a 3 and Kansas cruised into halftime ahead 40-27. Vick, Newman and Graham then opened the second half with 3s to extend the lead to 20.
One of the most encouraging signs for Kansas was that it jumped ahead by 13 at halftime despite a 1-for-7 start by Graham, the Big 12 player of the year. Big man Udoka Azubuike looked strong in his first start of the tournament with 14 points and 11 rebounds in a tournament-high 25 minutes.
What a wild 12 months it’s been for Brownell, the Clemson coach. He entered the season on the hot seat after six straight seasons without even making the NCAA Tournament. But the Tigers reached the regional semifinals for the first time since 1997 even after losing Donte Grantham, arguably their best player. The big question next is whether 2017-18 will prove a one shot wonder or the start of something big in the Upstate. Clemson has spent money on facilities to become a basketball school — but will it ever get out of the shadow cast by Dabo Swinney’s football team?
TIGERS CLAW BACK
For the final 12 minutes, Clemson played like the team that throttled Auburn to earn a crack at the Jayhawks. The Tigers didn’t turn it over once down the stretch, and they finished 14 of 19 at the free throw line — which was a strong point all year. But while Kansas hardly looked like a No. 1 seed down the stretch, it did improve to 25-1 this season when leading at the break.
DOKE LOOKED DOPE
Azubuike finished with his sixth double-double of the season. His presence forced Clemson to give more space to KU’s shooters, who went 10 of 22 on 3s.
HE SAID IT
“This is the team everyone would have thought … would not be in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio. I think we’ll play with no ‘what ifs.’ I think we’ll be loose,” Self said.
Kansas came in as a 4 ½-point favorite — a number that didn’t look to be in play … until it was.