Devonte’ Graham catching fire at perfect time for KU basketball

Guard hits four 3s, shoots 70 percent from field in second-round win

Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham celebrates sinking a basket against Michigan State in the first half of Sunday night’s second-round game in the NCAA Tournament at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. Graham finished with 18 points in the 90-70 victory. (The Associated Press)

TULSA, Okla. — Devonte’ Graham didn’t just hit one dagger. He hit three.

As top-seeded Kansas turned a close matchup with Michigan State on Sunday at BOK Center into a 90-70 blowout win in the final moments, the junior guard caught fire like he’s done so often throughout the last year and a half.

His first 3-pointer in the knockout stretch was textbook. With less than five minutes to play, he watched Frank Mason drive to the basket, catching the ball in the left corner and burying a 3 to put KU up 13.

“I was just shooting it with confidence,” he said.

If there was any doubt to the validity of that statement, his next shot should’ve ended that.

With just under three minutes to play and his team up 12, KU coach Bill Self was content to watch Mason dribble at the top of the key, bleeding about 15 seconds off the shot clock before receiving a screen from Josh Jackson. Mason moved to his right and tossed the ball to Jackson, who swung it to Graham in the corner.

At that point, a fan who had been heckling Graham and the Jayhawks all game from the front row chimed in with his thoughts.

“No way Graham! No way!” the fan yelled. “Get out of here!”

Yes way.

Graham pump faked in the corner. Spartans guard Matt McQuaid went for the block and flew out of the play. Graham took an escape dribble to his right, stepped back and buried a tough 3 over the outstretched arm of 6-foot-6 Michigan State forward Kenny Goins.

The crowd roared as KU took its biggest lead of the game to that point. Watching from courtside, play-by-play broadcaster and KU alumnus Kevin Harlan took it a step further on the CBS broadcast.

“Oh he’s got the stroke now,” Harlan exclaimed.

And how about one more for good measure?

By the time Graham took his final shot, the game was over. KU led by 17 with less than a minute to play. A feint Rock Chalk chant had already started about a minute earlier.

Still, as Graham came off a screen from Landen Lucas and flared to the corner, there was never a doubt what was going to happen. He rattled in the 3, his fourth of the game, to raise the margin to 20, where it would remain the rest of the way.

Graham finished the game with 18 points (7-for-10 shooting, 4 for 6 on 3-pointers), four assists and four rebounds in his 34 minutes, earning him a trip to the postgame news conference as one of the game’s key players.

At the raised platform, Graham found himself alongside Mason and Jackson. The trio, dubbed as one of the nation’s best backcourts, combined for 61 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in the win. They accounted for more than 60 percent of the team’s made field goals and some 75 percent of the team’s made 3s.

It was for that reason that when asked about his own performance after the game, Graham deflected the question, instead focusing on how good the trio had been.

“It’s hard to focus in on all of us at one time,” Graham said, “because we all can do so much.”

FEELIN’ THE LOVE Moments before his own team took the floor for a second-round matchup with USC, Baylor coach Scott Drew popped his head in the KU locker room, clapping for the Jayhawks and shouting some words of approval.

“Hey, congrats you guys,’ Drew said. “Good luck next week.”

The move caught several players off guard, including Lucas who was in the middle of giving an answer about Michigan State.

The fifth-year senior chuckled as he lost his train of thought. although he did say he appreciated the gesture.

“That’s nice of him,” Lucas said with a smile.

Drew, who tweeted “Baylor nation let’s do a great job cheering for Kansas today! Go Big 12!!!!!” ahead of the Jayhawks’ first-round matchup with UC Davis, made it very clear he was rooting for Big 12 success all week.

It was for that reason he left a message on the whiteboard in the KU locker room, signed with his name and school — it never hurts to be safe — at the bottom.

“Congrats! Great Job! Go Big 12!” the message read.

After his own squad advanced to the Sweet 16, Drew affirmed those statements one more time.

With three Big 12 schools in the Sweet 16 in different regions, it’s entirely plausible two of the teams could end up facing off again down the line. And it’s until that point, Drew noted, that he’s going to continue rooting for the Big 12.

“If it’s not conference time, we’re cheering for each other,” he said. “We’d love to see everybody at the Final Four together.”

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