OMAHA, Neb. – For the third year in a row, Kansas made it through the Sweet 16 – although not before Clemson tried its hardest to add another wild chapter to an already unbelievable tournament.
The top-seeded Jayhawks brought at least a temporary halt to the insanity of this March, withstanding a ferocious rally by fifth-seeded Clemson on Friday for a too-close-for-comfort, 80-76 victory.
Malik Newman led the Jayhawks (30-7) with 17 points in a one-time runaway that got much closer and, quite frankly, won’t mean much to KU fans if their team can’t finish the job in the Midwest Region final on Sunday.
As a top seed the last two seasons, Kansas made it through the regional semifinals, only to flop a game shy of the Final Four both times. In fact, this marks the sixth time Bill Self’s team has been seeded first since KU won it all in 2008; the Jayhawks missed the Final Four each of those previous times.
“I think about it all the time. I just told the guys in the locker room…this year, we’ve got to get over the hump,” said senior Devonte’ Graham, who had 16 points.
Still, it could’ve ended on Friday – in horrifying fashion – after Clemson stormed back from a 20-point deficit that stunned a crowd filled mostly with fans from Lawrence and surrounding areas, which are only a few hours from Omaha.
“We just kind of played not to lose down the stretch,” Self said.
Clemson trailed 62-42, but climbed to within six with 2:27 left. Graham’s offensive rebound after a Svi Mykhailiuk miss at the 1:57 mark allowed the Jayhawks to run almost a minute off the clock.
Kansas didn’t score after Graham’s rebound, and the Tigers got the next board for a chance to cut it to a one-possession game. But Shelton Mitchell and Gabe DeVoe each missed from beyond the arc. From there, Kansas overcame a dogged Clemson press just long enough to ensure that the Tigers couldn’t pull any closer until the tail end.
DeVoe had a career-high 31 for Clemson (25-10), which couldn’t replicate the magic it showed in beating Auburn by 31 to reach its first Sweet 16 in 21 years.
“We didn’t have our best game. Sometimes that’s not easy to keep fighting like that,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said.
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