Final Stop: Jayhawks crushed by 3-pointers in Final Four loss to Villanova

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas guard Malik Newman (14) peeks out from a towel as he watches the final seconds of the Jayhawks' 95-79 loss to Villanova on Saturday, March 31, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

San Antonio — A Kansas basketball season that featured the Jayhawks playing with fire and experiencing growing pains throughout came to an end on Saturday night at the Alamodome in front of 68,257 spectators and under a barrage of Villanova 3-pointers.

A postseason that featured top-seeded Kansas finding its footing in time to play its best and most consistent basketball of the season, which led, somewhat improbably, to Kansas getting back to the Final Four for the first time since 2012, was put on ice by a Villanova team that shattered the Final Four record for 3-pointers in a game, with 18.

That number — the Wildcats made 18 of 40 from downtown, including 13 of 26 in the disastrous first half — also tied the mark for most 3-pointers ever made against a Kansas team.

In the end, it all added up to a 95-79 Villanova victory that left Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham in tears, leaning into KU coach Bill Self’s chest as he walked to the bench for the final time as a Jayhawk.

“You know, I just knew it was my last time coming off the court in a Kansas uniform and just got really emotional,” said Graham after finishing his career with a 23-point night on 9-of-18 shooting, 4 of 8 from 3-point range in 39 minutes. “It has been a great ride, a great journey. These last four years have been a blessing and I just got really emotional.”

If it wasn’t the end that moved Graham to tears, it might have been what the Wildcats did to him and his teammates.

After so many games this season where it simply seemed like it was in the cards for the Jayhawks (31-8) to find a way to win, KU’s season, for the second time in three years, ended at the hands of Villanova. This time around — unlike in 2016, when the Jayhawks and Wildcats played a dazzling, down-to-the-wire affair — it was obvious early on that Kansas never really stood much of a chance. And no one left the building questioning whether the better team won.

To be fair, the way the Wildcats (35-4) were shooting, it’s hard to imagine any team having much of a shot on Saturday night. But on this night, and in this city, which is so near and dear to the hearts of so many Jayhawks, it was Kansas that was on the floor and on the losing side.

“They dominated the game, right from the jump,” Self said in front of the Jayhawks’ locker room after the loss. “They got anything they wanted early. We got punched in the face and we never really recovered to the point where we put any game pressure on them.”

It did not take long for Saturday’s Final Four showdown to sort itself out.

After Kansas opened the game by pounding the ball into 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike (eight points, five rebounds in 26 minutes) for a tough, left-handed hook shot in the paint and a 2-0 lead, the Jayhawks watched Villanova drain three straight 3-pointers — by three different players — to take a 9-2 lead three minutes into the game.

Self called timeout with 17:13 to play and, instead of getting better, things got worse from there.

By the time the two teams reached the first media timeout, Villanova had answered Azubuike’s early bucket with a 16-2 run and forced four KU turnovers while committing none of their own.

Believe it or not, that 16-4 deficit wound up looking like one the Jayhawks would’ve taken throughout much of the game. Before they knew it, the lead ballooned to 22-4, and, from there, KU spent most of the rest of the game facing a deficit closer to 18-22 points than 10-12.

“It gets to 22-4 and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re seven minutes in and we’re going to have to play just about perfect to get back,'” Self said after the loss. “They dominated the game, right from the jump.”

With Villanova purring on its way to tying the previous Final Four record for 3-point makes in a game (13 by UNLV vs. Indiana in 1987) in the first half, the Jayhawks did everything they could to hang around but never again climbed within single digits.

Villanova led 22-11 and followed that up with a 12-6 run to double up Kansas at 34-17. Villanova led 34-22 and slowly and methodically ripped off a mini-run of 11-6 that pushed the lead back to 17 and 15 by halftime.

Finally, with just less than 10 minutes to play and KU on a 5-0 run that trimmed the Wildcats’ lead to 14 (71-57), ‘Nova responded with a 12-6 spurt that put the game away and pushed KU’s deficit back to 20 points.

After the start, it wasn’t that the Wildcats’ runs were overpowering. But when you dig yourself the kind of hole that Kansas did in the game’s opening minutes, those little runs do the damage of hand grenades, and Kansas was powerless to change its fate.

“It’s tough,” said sophomore guard Malik Newman, who, with 21 points on 6-of-14 shooting, went over the 20-point mark for the sixth time in the Jayhawks’ final eight games. “When most of (their) points come from the 3-point line, you feel like you don’t really give yourself a chance to win.”

Added Azubuike of Villanova’s insane shooting display, which featured Villanova making 10 3-pointers before Kansas even attempted one over a 13-minute span: “It was unreal. They were shooting lights out. They were just making everything. That’s all I can say. Never seen it. They can shoot. They all can shoot.”

Seven Villanova players made 3-pointers in this one, with four making at least three. Although that was to be expected in a lot of ways, what killed Kansas was the fact that the Villanova big men, Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman, opened the game red hot and made life miserable for KU’s bigs, who simply could not chase them around the perimeter with any real effectiveness.

Most of Villanova’s record-setting performance came on open looks, the result of superb ball movement, precision passing and an offense that overwhelmed Kansas from start to finish.

“They made like four or five in a row, and then everybody started feeling like they could make everything,” said KU senior Svi Mykhailiuk.

Added Self: “I guess my talk of, ‘Live by the 3, die by the 3,’ wasn’t very good because I tried to encourage them by saying, ‘They won’t stay like this.’ But the bottom line is we gave them way too many looks.”

With the outcome long decided, Graham still playing and Self still coaching, a late two-possession sequence perfectly summed up the way this one went for the Jayhawks everywhere but the 3-point line.

After Graham drove hard to the rim and misfired while falling to the ground, Brunson picked up the loose ball and went racing the other way while Self screamed, “Foul, foul,” at the official as he ran by.

Instead of Graham getting the call and going to the line, Brunson went the other way, got to the rim and got the foul, bringing Villanova’s lead back to 18 points — 91-73 — with 1:30 to play.

Not long after that, Self subbed in his reserves and pulled Graham, Mykhailiuk and Newman off the floor for the final time.

As Graham walked toward the bench and felt his coach toss his left arm around his shoulders, that’s when the emotions started to flow. They did not stop after he got to the bench, either, as Graham and the rest of his teammates all struggled to accept and absorb the reality that his Kansas career was finished.

“It’s surreal,” said sophomore Mitch Lightfoot. “It just sucks. Those are my guys, my brothers, and seeing them check out leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

Added Azubuike: “It’s pretty hard, man. It’s tough. Not just for them, for everyone on this team. It’s not the right way to end it, but, Devonte’ and Svi, I feel for them.”

Saturday’s result, and the way it played out, was not anything close to the way those in crimson and blue wanted things to end. And, although they all admitted that, with some time, they would be able to look back at reaching the Final Four as a great accomplishment, the Jayhawks on Saturday night were more focused on what didn’t happen than what did.

“It’s hard just thinking you’re one game away from holding the trophy,” Azubuike said.

Said Mykhailiuk, matter-of-factly: “This team wanted to go to the Final Four and win a national championship. We did the first part and didn’t do the second part. I mean, it’s over, man.”

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