Kansas seniors Devonté Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk strolled into the interview room Saturday in the basement of United Supermarkets Arena wearing special Big 12 title caps, ones signifying the historical significance of No. 14 in a row.
“Excitement, everybody jumping around, spraying water on each other, hugging each other,” point guard Graham said of the scene in the locker room after the No. 8-ranked Jayhawks’ 74-72 victory over Texas Tech — one that assured KU (23-6 overall, 12-4 Big 12) at least a tie for a 14th straight league crown.
“We know we’ve been grinding all season. All the doubt people had, we proved people wrong,” Graham added after scoring 26 points, including four straight points that busted a 68-68 in the final 1:29.
The locker room celebration included handing out hats and T-shirts that read: “Big 12 champions — Kansas — NCAA best 14 straight.”
KU, which is two up on Tech (22-7, 10-6) with two games left to play, moved past UCLA for the NCAA record. The Bruins won 13 Pac-8 and Pac-10 crowns during 1967-79.
“To see how the guys hung in there and competed, I’m amazed,” KU coach Bill Self said. “I’m happy for everybody but most happy for Devonté and Svi. They put us our their back most of the season, but certainly today.”
Those two will have a chance to win the outright title and perhaps pose more with the league title trophy (which made an appearance in the locker room after Saturday’s contest) on Monday night. KU will meet Texas in an 8 p.m. Senior Night contest at Allen Fieldhouse.
“For us, with all the things people say about us … being undersized, no bench, can’t rebound, all this … we just stuck to what we do. We grinded,” Graham said. “Coach believes in us. We believe in each other. We did it.”
KU, which survived an 20-point performance by Tech’s Zhaire Smith and 18-point outing of Jarrett Culver, looked to Self for advice during a time out with 2:16 left and the score tied at 68-68. KU had squandered its 11-point first-half lead and an eight-point advantage with 4:41 to play against a team that had won 17 straight home games.
“In the huddle he said, ‘This is what we want,’’’ Graham said of Self. “He said, ‘If you told us we’d be tied with a minute left, we’d sell out for that. Now is time for players to make plays.’ We were good in the huddle about making plays for each other and winning the game.”
Graham — who Self said deserves to win Big 12 player of the year honors and should at least be considered for first-team All-America — first hit a deep shot with 1:29 left and the shot clock running down. After a Tech turnover, Graham drove to hit what he called a “crazy” layup and a “lucky” layup with 31.9 seconds left.
KU sophomore Malik Newman, who chipped in 12 points and five rebounds, said something to Graham, who hit 10 of 18 shots including 4 of 7 from three, after the tie-breaking bucket.
“I just told him that was a big shot, keep playing, be aggressive,” Newman said. “He was rolling at the time. No reason to do anything else but let him keep making plays because he was doing such a great job.”
Mykhailiuk’s free throw at 20.8 seconds, which followed another Tech turnover, gave KU a 73-68 lead. He finished with 21 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including 4 of 10 from three.
The game wasn’t over as Smith cashed two free throws that made it 73-70 KU with 8 seconds left. Graham managed just one of two free throws for a 74-70 KU lead. Tech’s Culver scored at :1.8, leaving the possibility the Raiders could swipe a last-second steal and make things interesting at the buzzer.
KU inbounded successfully, however, and ran the clock out, preventing Tech from becoming the first team to win both regular-season Big 12 meetings against KU in the Bill Self era. Tech handed KU its worst home loss in the Self era (82-75) back on Jan 2.
No doubt Graham was MVP of this one after scoring 18 second-half points.
“Of course, who else you gonna give it too?” Newman said with a smile, asked if he agreed with Self’s assertion Graham should be player of the year in the conference.
Self was asked about the significance of passing UCLA for the program’s 14th straight league crown.
“That’s a little tougher one to put in perspective. I don’t think we’ve had (Lew) Alcindor and (Bill) Walton and Marques Johnson and some of those cats,” Self said. “We’ve had our fair share of guys. I can understand why we’d be picked to win league most years because we’ve had I think the best personnel. This one will probably ring home more. We probably didn’t have the best personnel in the hardest year it’s been to win the league from a competitive standpoint. We didn’t have the worst. The pieces didn’t always fit the way we envisioned.”