Omaha, Neb. — It wouldn’t be March without a little drama.
Although top-seeded Kansas looked in control against Clemson early in the second half, the Tigers rallied to make the Jayhawks sweat before KU escaped CenturyLink Center with a 80-76 victory Friday night.
Much like KU’s second-round win six days earlier against Seton Hall, senior star Devonte’ Graham, who missed each of his first five shot attempts, didn’t have his most effective night. Graham hit 4 of 12 shots, and finished with 17 points, four assists and five rebounds.
But sophomore guard Malik Newman (17 points on 6-of-11 shooting), junior Lagerald Vick (13 points, eight rebounds) and sophomore center Udoka Azubuike (14 points, 11 boards) helped get Kansas to its third consecutive Elite Eight.
View a gallery of images from Friday night's Sweet 16 game between the Kansas Jayhawks and Clemson Tigers in Omaha, Nebraska.
KU’s balance was just enough to offset a huge night from Tigers senior Gabe DeVoe, who delivered a career-high 31 points.
Graham made a pair of free throws with 12 seconds remaining to give Kansas a manageable 80-74 cushion.
Kansas improved to 30-7 with the victory, giving 15th-year coach Bill Self his ninth 30-win season while in charge of the program.
Here’s a quick look back at some of the action:
• The game turned when: KU put Clemson in a 20-point hole less than two minutes into the second half.
Although the Tigers were the first to strike out of the locker room, with Marcquise Reed (13 points) scoring on the opening possession, the game felt out of reach before the half’s first media timeout.
Vick knocked down his third 3-pointer of the game on KU’s opening possession of the second half.
All of 42 seconds later, another KU shooter was ready to fire on the catch. Graham tried to lob to Azubuike for a potential basket inside but when the center caught the ball in the paint out of position he wisely looked to the opposite corner, setting up Newman with a pass for a 3-pointer.
One missed Elijah Thomas shot later, Newman fed Graham for his first successful 3-point try of the night and the Tigers trailed 49-29, prompting Clemson coach Brad Brownell to call a timeout 1:43 after intermission.
The Tigers later trimmed the lead to as little as four in the final minutes, thanks in large part to both Graham and Azubuike having to sit out stretches with foul trouble (Azubuike fouled out with 2:30 to play). But the opening few minutes of the second half helped the Midwest’s No. 1 seed survive those less-than-ideal lineups against the No. 5 seed.
• Offensive highlight: The Jayhawks came through with so many dunks — six in total — while building a 13-point lead by halftime, it was hard to choose just one.
Here were two that easily stood out above the rest.
Giving Azubuike a breather in the first half, Silvio De Sousa hustled his way to jaw-dropping fast-break jam.
Graham had just secured a defensive rebound and began pushing the ball up the floor at a standard rate. Most of the players on the court at the time followed the point guard’s pace in transition. But not De Sousa.
The freshman backup saw an open runway toward the hoop as he made his way into the front court. With his right index finger pointed toward the arena roof, De Sousa headed to the paint and Graham lofted a pass toward the right side of the backboard.
With no resistance from any Tigers, De Sousa rose up to hammer home a two-handed slam.
It wasn’t the only time a spectacular finish came as the result of some good, old-fashioned hustle.
When Svi Mykhailiuk (nine points) couldn’t get a well-defended layup to drop, Vick had his back with a weak-side crash.
As the miss bounced off the rim, Vick exploded, high above every other player on the floor to fire home a one-handed jam.
• Defensive highlight: A high schooler back in December, De Sousa made a bit of a name for himself in March Madness on both ends of the floor versus Clemson.
When Tigers junior David Skara found De Sousa checking him at the top of the key in the second half, the 6-8 forward drove past his freshman defender with no trouble.
However, Skara couldn’t make KU pay with a layup or dunk.
The Jayhawks’ 6-9 sub from Angola smacked Skara’s attempt off the glass, keeping the KU’s lead at 20 points with less than 11 minutes to play.
• Key stat: Points in the paint. A solid defensive team, Clemson entered the game allowing opponents to make just 43.8 percent of their 2-point field-goal attempts.
However, the Tigers’ defense inside the arc couldn’t stop KU from finding high-percentage shots in the key early on.
In the first half, Kansas put up 26 points in the paint, while Clemson only managed 12.
The Tigers won the paint in the second half, though, making it such a tight game. The teams finished tied at 34 in points in the paint, each using the interior to fuel their best half.
• Up next: The Jayhawks will return to CenturyLink Center on Sunday to face another ACC opponent, the winner of the other Midwest semifinal, between Duke and Syracuse.