With his back turned to the CenturyLink Center court, where two basketball powerhouses had just gone blow-for-blow in an overtime thriller sure to be etched into NCAA tournament lore, Kansas coach Bill Self raised both fists above his head.
And he screamed.
Three times. Pumping those arms into the air with each exuberant cry as the final buzzer sounded and KU’s Lagerald Vick chucked the ball at the scoreboard overhead.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”
Self insists he’s typically not one to display his emotions — at least not in that fashion. But after what had just occurred Sunday, how could he not exhale with such raw and pure elation?
His Jayhawks (31-7) had just reversed their Elite Eight jinx and clinched a Final Four berth with an 85-81 victory over Duke (29-8) before a sold-out, pro-Kansas crowd of 17,579.
It was an epic display of heart-pounding drama, when some of the sport’s most notable stars traded basket after basket for essentially the final 11 minutes.
“I’m not the most emotional guy, but sometimes you can just be overcome with it,” Self said. “And at that moment I was.”
He wasn’t alone.
KU had outlasted the No. 2 seed Blue Devils in a championship-caliber bout, boosted by Malik Newman’s 32-point performance, by Svi Mykhailiuk’s gutsy and gritty defensive effort against a bigger and stronger future NBA lottery pick, by a teamwide commitment to crashing the glass and by Vick’s creativity in the heart of Duke’s zone defense.
Vick jumped on the scorer’s table and gestured to the crowd after it was over. His teammates were running and jumping all over the court, stopping only to hug one another. Their smiles were as large as the burden they’d been carrying — No. 1 seed KU had lost two straight Elite Eight games (and five of seven under Self) before Sunday.
“It’s just a great feeling for us,” senior Devonte Graham said. “Getting over that hump, it just feels unbelievable.”
Presumably because they were so close to falling short Sunday.
After Mykhailiuk buried a game-tying 3-pointer with 25 seconds left in regulation, Duke senior Grayson Allen nearly gave his team a reason to dog pile.
His one-footed, fading pull-up ricocheted off the glass, rolled around the rim and bounced off the backboard again before momentarily — and oh-so-dramatically — skipping along the rim. But it dropped away for a miss. The buzzer sounded. Overtime.
Then Newman took over. He scored all 13 Kansas points in the extra period, including the go-ahead 3-pointer to make it 81-78 with 1:43 left. After Duke freshman Trevon Duval missed an open jumper that could have tied the game at 81-all with just over 30 seconds remaining, Newman sunk four free throws to seal it.
“I’m just glad that I was able to contribute in a good way to help these guys,” Newman said, referencing his teammates.
He provided the spark KU needed out of halftime, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to erase a three-point deficit. Duke never did quit, though.
Kansas’ 48-41 lead suddenly was trimmed to one point after Duval knocked down an open 3-pointer and freshman Marvin Bagley banged in a triple three possessions later.
The crowd roared after every KU bucket, but the Blue Devils kept answering. The lead changed hands seven times in the final six minutes of regulation. And then three times more in overtime.
There was Duke freshman Gary Trent nailing a deep 3-pointer at the shot clock buzzer. Vick rising for a foul line jumper. Freshman Wendell Carter rolling to the rim and dunking inside. KU sophomore Udoka Azubuike throwing down a thunderous alley-oop slam. Bagley scoring inside. And Duval darting through the lane and finishing at the rim.
But Newman made the biggest shots late, responding to Graham’s confident and constant plea for guys to step up. Bagley never did get going —Mykhailiuk’s effort and KU’s double-teaming tactics held him to a quiet 16 points. Kansas’ four-guard lineup grabbed 15 more rebounds than its taller counterpart, too.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward that “it was an honor to play in this game.”
Self shared that same sentiment. He just had the privilege of celebrating once it was all over. And boy, did he celebrate.
“That was an epic game,” Self said in the press conference, after he’d changed out of a suit that had been soaked with water during joy-filled locker room mayhem. “One of the best ones — if not the best — I’ve ever been a part of.”