OMAHA, Neb. — Ridiculous. Electrifying. Bonkers. Bananas.
All of these words describe the jaw-dropping play Sunday from Kansas sophomore guard Malik Newman, and they're probably not strong enough. Suddenly the nation’s best player and peaking in the sports world’s most exhilarating championship tournament, Newman picked the perfect time to have the game of his life.
His night, though, wasn't perfect — but more on that in just a moment.
Newman’s ascension from frustrating midseason enigma to bona fide college basketball supernova made its biggest climb yet in the Elite Eight contest against No. 2 Duke. The former top-10 recruit, the local sensation who flamed out as a home-state hero at Mississippi State, delivered 32 points in a season-saving effort for the top-seeded Jayhawks.
After back-to-back seasons of grief in this round of the NCAA Tournament, KU has advanced to its first Final Four since 2012 by way of an 85-81 overtime victory over the Blue Devils.
“At the end of the day this is why you come to Kansas, to be in games like this, to be in moments like this,” Newman said. “I just knew that the guys that was beside me, I knew those guys, they care. They worked hard each and every day. They love one another. So I mean, I had no question that we can get to this moment.”
Newman scored all 13 of the Jayhawks’ points in overtime, including a go-ahead 3-pointer that gave KU the lead for good with 1:49 left in the extra session. Once chided by Bill Self and the rest of the coaching staff for his defense, Newman played arguably the team’s most sterling possession on that side of the ball this season, hanging tight with Duke’s Grayson Allen, not fouling and contesting an attempted buzzer-beater at the end of regulation that rolled, rolled and — whew — kicked out and fell harmlessly to force the overtime period.
Again, though, Newman’s night wasn’t flawless.
After the final buzzer sounded, after guard Lagerald Vick threw the ball straight up and seemingly into the heavens, after Self threw both arms in the air, let out a roar and vigorously hugged his coaching staff in the wake of a game he’d later call the second-best victory in his 15 seasons at KU, Newman made another ascent. This time, though, it was up a ladder and with a pair of scissors, tasked with cutting off a piece of the net he only minutes earlier swished a corner 3 through to put the Jayhawks back in San Antonio.
Here’s where the slip up occurred. Newman, you see, wanted more than a piece of the net. The final KU player to make the climb, Newman hacked the whole thing down, put his left hand through it and draped it across his shooter sleeve, then raised it triumphantly into the air with a closed fist.
KU’s season continues because of Malik Newman, but after nearly 90 minutes of giving interview after interview about Newman's effort, after a marathon media tour that featured countless complimentary remarks about the player becoming simply known as “Postseason Leek,” Self finally got to his criticism of perhaps Newman’s biggest bugaboo.
“Hey Malik,” Self barked as he reentered the team locker room, “I’m glad you cut down the last strands so I didn’t get no damn net.”
The Jayhawks’ new superstar, of course, didn’t miss a beat.
“I got it,” Newman shouted back through his thick Southern accent, “right here!”
The door to the locker room closed, but the one to a national championship remains open.
The dramatic, come-from-behind thriller ensured that Self’s words at Late Night in the Phog nearly five months ago — “We’ve knocked on the door. We’ve beaten on the door. It’s time for this team to kick the door in,” he said at the time — proved prophetic.
No Jayhawk left a bigger footprint on that door than Newman.
His 10-point outburst in the first five minutes of the second half turned a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead. His drives into the lane coaxed three fouls out of Wendell Carter, the last fouling out the 6-foot-10 forward and potential matchup nightmare with 2:49 left in overtime. His “perfect” defense, as Self later called it, on the Blue Devils’ final possession of regulation forced an off-balance shot from Allen and ensured overtime.
All told, Newman finished 8 for 19 from the field, 5 for 12 from 3-point range and 11 for 12 from the free-throw line with seven rebounds. The polarizing senior guard Allen, who Newman was tasked with guarding in the contest, finished with 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting.
“I can’t take any credit for him, but there’s no doubt I made my feelings very well known with him for the things he wasn’t doing,” Self said of Newman. “... He’s just become more of a complete player. I think so many times people have thought he’s a shooter. Well, now he’s shown he can score. He can drive the ball, get to the free-throw line.
“I don’t know what it was, the light that came on, but let’s keep that thing on for a while.”
Newman may have taken the leading role, but his supporting cast was award-worthy, too.
Svi Mykhailiuk scored 11 points, hauled in 10 boards to help the Jayhawks (31-7) out-rebound the towering Blue Devils by 15, and hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 26 seconds left that forced the extra period. Recent high school graduate Silvio De Sousa spelled foul-plagued and eventually fouled-out Udoka Azubuike (nine points, eight rebounds in 19 minutes) with a critical 10-rebound performance. And the pair, led primarily by Mykhailiuk, played outstanding defense on freshman forward and national player of the year contender Marvin Bagley, who was limited to 16 points on only nine shot attempts and 10 rebounds in 44 minutes.
“That was a big-boy game, a heavyweight bout,” Self said. “We fortunately caught ’em late with a pretty good right, because that could’ve gone either way.”
Trevon Duval scored 20 points to pace the Blue Devils (29-8), who in postgame interviews cited Newman as the difference-maker and momentum killer.
“He made a lot of tough shots and a lot of timely shots for them,” Allen said. “... A lot of them it just felt like, right when we felt like we were about to get a run, he hit one."
“He’s been their hottest player,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He basically continued to do what he does.”
Self said time seemed to stop on Allen’s final attempt in regulation, a shot that looked in until suddenly it wasn’t. It was, as the KU coach put it, the biggest break of the contest. The best thing about Newman’s defense on that play, he continued, was that he kept Allen off the free-throw line and lived with the midrange attempt.
Newman embraced a mentality Self has been yearning for the guard to adopt all season, the outcome the best play on either end from a player that had plenty of highlights on the offensive side.
“The whole thing about it is, to me, that’s what toughness is,” Self said. “Not because we just got the one stop, but you talk the whole year long, hey, if the other team’s got the ball playing for one shot, you want to be on offense or defense? Would you rather be down one with the ball or up one on defense? We talk about that stuff all the time, and I thought our guys played that last possession like a team’s supposed to play.”
On to San Antonio, the site of the Jayhawks’ last national championship triumph 10 years ago. It will be a trip Self said frankly that he would’ve never envisioned midway through this season.
“We didn’t even know who was going to finish the season with our roster a couple months ago,” Self said. “We had some hard lessons to learn, and I had to do a better job of motivating and coaching and pushing the right buttons."
He may not have gotten to clip a piece of the net, but the aftermath of the victory is one Self — or anyone involved, for that matter — won't soon forget.
“I try not to be too emotional. I’m not the most emotional guy. But sometimes you can just be overcome with it, and at that moment I was,” Self said. “... I’m happy for our staff and our school and all that stuff, but I’m more happy for these guys because they’ve sacrificed so much and (will) experience what the very best of college basketball is all about.”