By SEAN BOCK
OMAHA, Neb. — In an arena that had an atmosphere similar to Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas started hot out of the gates and didn’t seem to look back.
Devonte’ Graham, the Big 12 Player of the Year, struggled throughout the game, but the play of Malik Newman (17 points) Lagerald Vick (13 points), and Udoka Azubuike (14 points, 11 rebounds) propelled the Jayhawks past Clemson, 80-76, in the first Sweet 16 matchup of the Midwest Regional at CenturyLink Arena. No. 1 Kansas will face No. 2 Duke on Sunday at 5:05 ET for the right to advance to the Final Four.
“Of all the teams we’ve had make it here, I think people would say this team would be the one least likely to make a run,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who is 2-7 all-time in Elite Eight games. “I’ve never played with a team like this, four little guards. These guys have figured it out.”
Kansas made sure to utilize the mismatch down low feeding Azubuike on every chance it could. Clemson, whose tallest player is 6-foot-9, didn’t have an answer for the opposing big men.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 23, 2018
With Azubuike playing on a hurt knee and fouling out with 2:30 left in the game, freshman Silvio De Sousa (9 points, 6 rebounds) provided a boost off the bench and gave the 7-foot sophomore much needed rest.
“Nothing dropped off when Silvio came in,” Newman said of De Sousa coming off the bench.
The Jayhawks will be playing in the program’s 24th Elite Eight on Sunday and have a chance to make their 14th Final Four. Kansas’ last national title victory was in 2008 and last made it to the final weekend in 2012.
Self owns a career 2-7 record in the Elite Eight and could improve on it with one of his least likely groups.
“But I think about it all the time,” Self said of his infamous regional final record. “Devonte’s not won the last two, but there’s seven that I haven’t won when I’ve been the head coach. Certainly, it’s etched in the back of my brain, and I’d like nothing more
than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”
Senior guard Gabe Devoe was the x-factor for the Tigers as he finished with a game-high 31 points in his final college game. Clemson was lackadaisical with the ball coughing it up eight times in the first half and 12 for the whole game.
The Kansas defense, which ranks 47th in the country in defensive adjusted efficiency according to KenPom, exposed the Tigers’ lack of individual talent on the offensive end and forced coach Brad Brownell’s team to shoot 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from distance.
“You’re going to struggle when you don’t rebound and turn the ball over,” Brownell said.
Up by 13 at the half, Vick, Graham, and Newman connected on three straight triples to push the lead to 20 early in the second and give their squad all the momentum.
The Jayhawks connected on 10 triples tying their season average.
The Tigers cut the lead to 6 with 2:27 left but couldn’t capitalize by taking poor shots down the stretch and ultimately meeting their fate.
“We played not to lose in the end,” Self said. “We did just enough to win.”
With all the upsets in this year’s tournament, Kansas feels it is more focused on the ultimate end goal.
“We just know we have to be focus because if we slip up and don’t come prepared it can be the end of the season,” Graham said. “We all love each other and want to play with each other as long as we can. Especially Svi [Mykhailiuk] and I the seniors on this team because there’s no tomorrow and no turning back if we lose.”
Photo: KU Hoops
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