Omaha, Neb. — The fear going in was that the mammoth size and superior rebounding prowess of Duke would be too much for Kansas to contend with in Sunday's Elite Eight game, a game that was the antithesis of the rest of this year's NCAA Tournament, pitting the top two seeds and college basketball powerhouses against each other in the regional final.
And then the game tipped off and the most unexpected thing happened. The Jayhawks dominated the glass.
For all of the offensive numbers that Kansas used to knock off Duke, 85-81, in a thrilling overtime contest, it was KU's whopping 47-32 advantage on the boards that might have been most responsible for moving the Jayhawks into the Final Four.
KU ripped down 17 offensive rebounds (compared to 10 for Duke) and continually got the big defensive boards it needed to spark the Jayhawks’ transition offense and keep Duke's defense from getting comfortable.
Five Jayhawks grabbed six or more rebounds, including a team-best 10 from reserve big man Silvio De Sousa and 6-foot-8 guard Svi Mykhailiuk, who failed to record a single rebound in KU's Sweet 16 victory over Clemson two nights earlier.
“Unbelievable,” elated KU coach Bill Self said on the court during the postgame celebration. “My soft guys rebounded the ball pretty good. … Our guys were unbelievable on the glass and that was obviously a huge factor.”
View a gallery of images from Sunday's Elite Eight game between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils in Omaha.
KU center Udoka Azubuike, who fouled out with nine points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes, said he was blown away by how hard his teammates hit the glass in Sunday's victory.
“They were great,” Azubuike said. “We talked about it. They came in, they stepped up big and they went and got the ball. It was a team effort today.”
The monster performance in the rebounding department marked just the 13th time in 38 games this season that the Jayhawks outrebounded an opponent.
And the plus-15 advantage was KU's fourth best margin of the season, made all the more impressive considering the opponent.
On the flip side, KU became just the seventh team all season to outrebound the Blue Devils, who entered Sunday not having been topped on the glass by more than six rebounds in a single game in 36 previous tries.
Said Self, who pointed out that eight of Duke's 32 rebounds were loose off of deflections out of bounds: “That was the best we've done on the glass all year long and the most dominant we've been, without question. We were terrific.”
As was the case in Kansas City, Mo., at the Big 12 tournament, Malik Newman picked up some more hardware at Sunday's regional final, bringing home Most Outstanding Player honors from a region that included a ton of future NBA talent.
Newman, who hit 30 points or more for the second time in the past six games, was joined on the all-tourney team by teammate Devonte' Graham, Duke's Trevon Duval, Marvin Bagley III and Gary Trent Jr., and Clemson's Gabe DeVoe.
“Well, he's been their hottest player,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Newman after the loss. “He basically continued to do what he does. They've got four really good options, but he's been really hot. He's been playing at an extremely high level and he did that, especially in the second half. He's a great kid and he's a good player.”
His 3-of-9 shooting clip from 3-point range on Sunday night, moved Kansas senior Svi Mykhailiuk into first place on KU's all-time list for 3-pointers made in a single season.
Mykhailiuk now has hit 114 triples this season, moving him ahead of Terry Brown, who drained 111 during the 1990-91 season. Mykhailiuk now has made three or more 3-pointers 40 times during his KU career, including 23 times this season.
While Mykhailiuk's first triple of the night set the record, it was his last, which tied the game with 25 seconds to play, that will forever be remembered.
Now, with the Jayhawks having at least one more game to play this season, Mykhailiuk can simply pad his record next weekend in San Antonio.
Already the first KU duo to each make 100 3-pointers in the same season, Mykhailiuk and Graham have combined to make the most 3-pointers in a three-year span by any Jayhawks in history, recording 490 combined triples during the past three seasons. Jeff Boschee and Kirk Hinrich rank second on that list, with 405, and so many of Mykhailiuk's 3-point makes have come off of passes from Graham.
To that end, Graham on Sunday became KU's single-season assists leader, moving to 279 on the season, one better than the mark established by Cedric Hunter in 1985-86.
Don't forget Frank
In the hallway outside of the locker room after the game, Kansas director of student-athlete development Fred Quartlebaum sent a quick text to someone he thought deserved to be a part of Sunday's moment, as well — former Jayhawk point guard, Frank Mason III.
“He's so happy for this group,” Quartlebaum said with a huge grin. “So I just hit him up and let him know we were thinking about him. He's living his dream now, playing in the NBA. But he set the table for this.”
Thousands of KU basketball fans filled downtown Lawrence, Sunday, March 25, 2018, following the team's victory over Duke which will send them to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday marked KU guard Sam Cunliffe's 21st birthday and, instead of spending it the way a lot of college students do, Cunliffe watched a lot of film and did whatever he could to help the Jayhawks get ready for Duke.
As it turned out, Cunliffe's big bash was merely delayed a day, with the Jayhawks unleashing a wild celebration on the floor, in the locker room and, undoubtedly, on the entire bus ride back to Lawrence after their victory.
Asked if the regional championship trophy came a day late to qualify as a birthday present, Cunliffe smiled and said simply, “This is all I wanted, though. That's all I wanted. So we're good.”
This and that...
Kansas, which now has won seven games in a row since ending the regular season with an ugly loss at Oklahoma State, has reached 31 wins for the third consecutive season and ninth time in 15 years under Self... KU, next week, will be playing in its 15th Final Four in school history and improved to 107-45 all-time in NCAA Tournament games (fourth most ever behind Kentucky (126), North Carolina (124) and Duke (111), including 15-8 in the Elite Eight, 39-12 as a 1 seed, 6-4 against No. 2 seeds and 7-1 in NCAA Tournament games played in Omaha... Sunday's victory was KU's first NCAA Tournament overtime game since the Jayhawks lost to Michigan in the 20013 Sweet 16 in Dallas... KU is now 68-58 all-time in overtime games and 1-0 in overtime games this season. KU is 5-5 all-time in NCAA Tournament games decided in overtime.