For 39 minutes on Saturday afternoon -- so dang near the whole time -- Devonte' Graham was the personification of Kansas’ march-of-the-undead through recent Big 12 history. The sophomore chased after Oklahoma’s national player of the year candidate and harassed Buddy Hield into what qualifies as a bad day. At the other end, Graham scored more points than anyone who put on a uniform in Lloyd Noble Center, cold-bloodedly draining the biggest shots for his team and thus draining the hope from a crowd seeking a reckoning. He was the best guard on the floor when the other team was supposed to deploy the best backcourt in the country.
And all of this comprised the Jayhawks’ latest psychological torment exacted on the rest of the league: Once again hearing the whispers that a 12th straight league title would not follow the 11 before it, they essentially absorbed the strength of the would-be champions on the other side and turned it against them.
A 76-72 win over Oklahoma on Saturday does not hand the Big 12 trophy to Kansas; it doesn’t even leave it in first place all alone, as West Virginia currently shares that space. But it was a season sweep of a national championship-caliber team, when that team had been sizing up this day for more than a month. The epic three-overtime loss to the Jayhawks on Jan. 5 was, by the admission of some Sooners players, one of the best games they’d ever been a part of. It was also a defeat that lodged in their chest, as if they tried to swallow a grapefruit whole. This was a day they’d long anticipated, for the vengeance they’d find during it.
And Kansas yanked it all away, because to beat Kansas for a Big 12 title, you are sadly not permitted such preferred zombie-elimination methods as setting them on fire. You have to be better at basketball, consistently, if not almost perfect at it.
Because the Jayhawks went up against a team hot for revenge and unfurled a near-perfect first half on the road, shooting 54% overall and 55% from three-point range and holding Hield without a field goal as it built as much as a 14-point lead. It dogged Hield into 5-of-15 shooting, overall, but most critically answered what haymakers he could muster: When Hield hit his first shot of the game, a second-half three-pointer that gave Oklahoma its first lead since the first minute, Kansas guard Wayne Selden immediately retaliated with his own score. When a pair of Hield three-point bombs fueled an 8-0 run that seemed to assert the Sooners’ control minutes later, the Jayhawks contrived a 7-0 run as a retort.
These were, essentially, the daisy cutters that Oklahoma regularly sends to the opposite sideline, expecting to leave nothing but fragments and chaos as they pull away. If it was jarred, Kansas nevertheless did an expert job sweeping aside the debris and carrying on. For that sort of resolve, the Sooners might not yet have an answer.
(Oklahoma shot just 33% from the game, a figure anchored to the sea floor by its 3-of-21 start. But this makes it three straight games in which the Sooners have fired at 43% from the field or worse, underwhelming production from one of the most overwhelming attacks in the nation before that. That they got their fingernails dirty and nearly pulled out back-to-back wins over Texas and Kansas regardless is somewhat comforting. More relevantly, they need something more from Jordan Woodard, who is now 8-of-39 from the floor in his last five games. Hield and Isaiah Cousins can do a lot, but they’re not going to be able to do it all every night.)
Anyway, there was Kansas, without starting guard Frank Mason III for the final 3:18, with the junior’s fifth foul precipitating a massive four-point play from Oklahoma’s Jordan Woodard…and on the next two offensive possessions, the Jayhawks received a pair of stubborn three-pointers from Graham, the first tying the game and the second creating a lead that his team would not relinquish in the final moments.
This was a master act by Graham, the 6’2” sophomore guard tasked with tailing Hield for almost the entire time they were on the floor together. Graham outscored Hield (27 to 24) out-shot him overall (8-of-13 to that 5-of-15) and even out-bombed him (six three-pointers to Hield’s five). Hield’s stunning missed free throw with 25 seconds left -- the second of two attempts from a 90% shooter that would have tied the game -- seemed less an accident than the appropriate residue of the 39-plus minutes that preceded it.
“I just took it personal,” Graham told ESPN before he headed into the locker room, alluding to that very network’s hyping of Hield and Co., and whatever other perceived slights the Jayhawks carried into the game.
At some point the rest of the Big 12 will get the idea: In any attempt to steal away what has been Kansas’ for the past 11 years running, it’s best to keep quiet until you actually pull off the job. Do not make any sounds, lest you rouse what can’t be killed.