Tom Keegan: Svi for 3 and great ‘D’ in KU’s Elite Eight victory

photo by: Nick Krug

Duke guard Grayson Allen (3) throws a pass beyond Kansas guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (10) and Kansas guard Malik Newman (14) during the first half, Sunday, March 25, 2018 at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha, Neb. — His legs weary from leaning into 7-foot Marvin Bagley III all Sunday afternoon, Svi Mykhailiuk’s jumpers started glancing off the front of the CenturyLink Center rim.

Once, twice, three times in a row he missed a 3-pointer during the final 10 regulation minutes of a battle of heavyweights who never let up.

And with each miss, coach Bill Self’s motto for the game never changed: “Let it fly.”

And with each miss, point guard Devonte’ Graham, as much of a coach on the floor as Self has ever had, spoke the same words to Svi, his best friend.

“Devonte’ told me to keep shooting the ball and then the last one, he passed the ball and I just made it,” Svi said.

The pure shot delivered from just right of the top of the key tied the score with 26 seconds remaining and coupled with the terrific defense played on Grayson Allen at the other end, forced overtime in a game Kansas would win, 85-81. Svi’s shot locked the score, 72-72.

“Huge shot,” Self said afterward. “Biggest shot of the game.”

Overtime was fitting because there was no way either team deserved to lose after playing 40 minutes of such intense, entertaining basketball.

“When you have a great game, usually you have two teams that are deserving of winning, but only one wins,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

After Svi’s 3-pointer, the 17,579 spectators would have their guts torn apart one more time as Allen’s shot circled the rim for a brief eternity in which nobody could tell whether it would drop through the hoop or fall to the floor.

The mixture of relief and disappointment at the outcome of the final shot of regulation gave way to a five-minute Malik Newman show.

Deadly accurate from the right corner, Newman dominated the overtime, was named the Midwest Regional’s outstanding player.

The buzzer sounded as the ball Lagerald Vick had whipped into the air finally came down and soon Svi and fellow senior Devonte’ Graham, who had failed to reach the Final Four in Elite Eight losses to Villanova and Oregon, met near halfcourt.

Svi’s words to Graham: “We did it, man! We’re going to San Antonio for the Final Four.”

Afterward, Self couldn’t stop talking about what a great game Svi played, and most of that time was spent discussing the defensive job he did on Bagley.

“Where we won the game was just by scrapping and Svi defending Bagley and Malik defending Allen,” Self said.

Svi gave up four inches in height and far more than that in wingspan guarding Bagley, who was trapped every time he was fed the ball.

“I thought Svi did about everything right defensively,” Self said. “The thing what’s hard with Bagley, he’s obviously a great talent, but he can take up so much space with one step. You can play good defense, but if he can get a step, that step is 4 feet and his arms are so long, he creates a way that you can’t contest that. I thought Svi did a great job of butt-fronting him, you know, sitting on his legs a little bit. I thought our traps were at least somewhat effective when he caught it.”

Svi mastered the art of playing physically up to the point allowed by referees without crossing the line.

“All the time he was on the court, I was with him, just pushing him a little so he could feel me every time,” Svi said. “Don’t let him go anywhere without me actually just putting my hand on his body so he would get tired and stuff. I was just doing it the whole game so he doesn’t feel free going around the court.”

Bagley finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Svi had 11 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

Not as nearly as much was on the line the first time Svi hit a big 3 in the state of Nebraska this season. He defeated the Cornhuskers to end an off shooting night in the best way possible.

“That was a big shot, but that wasn’t the same,” Svi understated.

He had been on the wrong end of misplays a couple of times: Silvio De Sousa’s pass to the perimeter, where Svi was open for a 3, sailed way over his head and landed out of bounds. Graham had overthrown him in transition, denying him a sure dunk. And then there were the shots glancing off the front of the rim. It would have been a tough way to end his career.

Yet, it’s not surprising he shook all that off and made the shot. He has been playing for Self for four years and the most understated brilliance in Self’s coaching success has to do with the way he empowers his players to make bold offensive plays because he thinks they have the talent to make them. He believes in them, making it hard for them not to believe in themselves. Self constantly reminds them to take the open shot, forever urges them to make the aggressive pass on the fly. And from Day 1, he insists his players train their focus on the next play. It wasn’t the plays behind him that were on Svi’s mind when he let it fly. It was the rim in front of him.

Self loved the mindset his players embraced all game.

“We didn’t play to go to the Final Four,” Self said. “We played to beat Duke. So many times when you get on this stage regardless of how you tell your players to be loose, you play because you want what’s after. This wasn’t one of those games. Our guys know their guys. Their guys know all of us. We played to try to win that game and the ramification of winning that game is going to San Antonio.”

For the Final Four, the first one on the Riverwalk since Kansas slayed North Carolina and then Memphis in overtime to win the national title 10 years ago.

Villanova, the school that denied Kansas a trip to the 2016 Final Four, awaits Kansas for a Saturday national semifinal.

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