Duke and Kansas played what looked like a Final Four game on Sunday. Though the loser won’t make it to San Antonio, the two college basketball bluebloods contested what looked like a national semifinal in Omaha. It just happened to occur six days too soon.
Kansas came out on top, 85-81, with Malik Newman leading the charge. The Mississippi State transfer scored 32 points, including 13 in a dramatic overtime, sending Kansas back to the Final Four for the first time since 2012.
It was, by many measures, the game of the tournament, which is why 40 minutes wasn't enough to decide it. Kansas senior Svi Mykhailiuk's 3-pointer tied the game at 72 with 27 seconds remaining in regulation. Grayson Allen very nearly won it at the buzzer, but saw his off-balance jumper roll off the rim, off the backboard, and out.
In overtime, Newman then took center stage. He drilled two 3s. He drained his free throws. And after five consecutive NCAA tournament failures, Bill Self and Kansas are back where fans believe they belong.
Duke led 36-33 at halftime, thanks mainly to freshman point guard Trevon Duval. Duval racked up 13 points in just 20 minutes, and closed the half with a quick four-point flurry. The latter two came from a floater late in the shot clock. The first time came on a drive to the cup that caught Devonte’ Graham sleeping.
The first half, though, was as tight as could be. Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self played some chess. Both teams played tough defense. Both had the talent to break tough defenses. Kansas spread its scoring around, with all seven rotation players getting in on the act.
Early in the second half, Malik Newman stepped into a starring role. He hit two 3-pointers from the left corner to put the Jayhawks back on top. Bill Self appeared to have cracked Duke’s constantly morphing zone as well. His players got the ball to the middle of that zone with ease, and either scored there or passed out for open jumpers. The result was a 15-5 spurt to open the period, and a seven-point Kansas lead.
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Krzyzewski, though, seemed to tweak the zone on the fly, and the Kansas’ delays to make adjustments helped Duke get back in the game. The Blue Devils hit a couple of 3s, got the ball to Marvin Bagley down low, and tied the game at 57 with nine minutes to go.
From there, the two hoops giants went back and forth. They traded spurts. Gary Trent Jr.’s deep 3 capped a rapid 7-0 Duke run that put the Blue Devils in front, 64-62.
But Newman answered with a triple at the other end out of a timeout.
Grayson Allen came through in the clutch down the stretch for Duke. He drove on consecutive possessions, and got fouled on both. The first foul was on Udoka Azubuike, his fifth. Allen knocked down all four free throws.
But after Mykhailiuk drilled the game-tying 3, Allen couldn’t quite win it at the buzzer.
Overtime was back and forth. A questionable charge call on Duke’s Wendell Carter had Blue Devil fans up in arms. The story, though, was Newman, who went off when it mattered.
To say the national title will be played on Saturday would be disrespectful to Michigan and Loyola. But Villanova has looked like the best team in the field. And Kansas proved it was the second best on Sunday.