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Kansas beats Duke and its Elite Eight demons with an overtime classic

OMAHA, Neb. — The habitual winners at Duke might cringe years into the future over a basketball so bloody indecisive that it seemed to touch every smidgen of iron as it lallygagged around the rim, kissed the backboard, ventured back to the rim and then rolled off toward the floor as if deciding it craved overtime. The habitual winners at Kansas might revel years into the future over a basketball so blasted gorgeous that when it went up from the left corner and arced downward, it seemed not so much to swish down as to smash down, as if deciding it aimed to stoke some bedlam.

Meanwhile, the 17,579 witnesses inside CenturyLink Center on Sunday early evening will chatter years into the future over their ticket-buying luck at seeing this Midwest Region final because of all the gasps and palpitations and frenzy and quality it provided. And at last, the heavy majority that yearned for Kansas will know their team surmounted a big heap of difficult stuff, because it whistled boldly through the corridor of its goblins and haunts, the Elite Eight, and its 85-81 overtime win signaled it could withstand both that and the constellation of stars at Duke.

“It’s hard to describe, man,” said Kansas senior leader Devonte’ Graham, the consensus all-American whose gut Elite Eight losses in 2016 and 2017 had attempted to mangle. Yet describe, the participants did. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose record in this oft-torturous round in the NCAA tournament dipped to a still-celestial 12-3 and caused him an ashen final walk down the hallway afterward, called it “an honor to play in this game.” Kansas Coach Bill Self, whose reddened reaction upon the final horn hinted at apparent demon-banishment, called it “a big-boy game” and “two blue bloods that’ll beat each other’s heads in” and “a heavyweight fight” and “the second-best win that we’ve ever had,” after only the 2008 title game against Memphis.

“I would have been proud to coach in that game even if the outcome was different,” he said.

Indeed, Kansas ventures to the third Final Four of Self’s 15 seasons, and its first in six years, by riding a demanding rodeo of a game that played out with ludicrous evenness. Kansas made 30 of 69 field goal attempts; Duke made 30 of 70. Kansas used rebounding by scrapping committee to outrebound Duke by 47-32; Duke used beyond-freshman moxie from its freshmen to commit only 11 turnovers to 18 from its opponent. Duke sprang for five players in double figures; Kansas presented four with another guy at nine points. Duke giant Wendell Carter Jr., fouled out in overtime; Kansas giant Udoka Azubuike fouled out two minutes before overtime.

Duke (29-8) never led by more than four.

Kansas (31-7) never led by more than seven, and when it did, with 16:06 left, Duke cleaned up most of that in a jiffy.

Duke had a fine game from its lead star, Marvin Bagley III, with 16 points and 10 rebounds and two assists; Kansas had a soaring game from one of its two lead stars, Malik Newman, the transfer from Mississippi State who missed all the pain of recent years and scored 32 points to stave off any further pain, including the paramount shot from the corner with 1:49 left in overtime. Duke had large splashes from its slightly less famous freshmen, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr., who scored 20 and 17 points and also made confident drives; Kansas had the shrewd Lagerald Vick operating from the middle of the Duke zone with 14 points, Graham with six assists and six rebounds from his 6-foot-2 stature, and the 6-8 senior Svi Mykhailiuk with 11 points and 10 rebounds and pretty damned good defense on the 6-foot-11 Bagley and . . .

And Kansas’s second-biggest shot.

It came with 26 seconds left, and Mykhailiuk’s audacity in taking it exemplified Kansas’s audacity all told. He had just missed two open three-point shots as things had begun to creak with a hint of familiarity for the Jayhawks. After Duke senior captain Grayson Allen’s four perfect free throws in the penultimate minute of regulation pushed the Blue Devils ahead 72-69, Newman missed with 1:05 left, Bagley rebounded, Carter missed with 36 seconds left, the greenhorn 6-9 freshman Silvio De Sousa rebounded, and March had gone into franticness as can only March.

The ball wound up with Mykhailiuk at the right of the top of the key, and his shot sang its way through, tying the score, leaving the whole heaving occasion with the two shots that might hang on in memory.

With the seconds ticking more furiously than normal, the game distilled to Allen against Newman, one-on-one. Newman’s defense excelled. Allen’s move wasn’t bad. He wound up backing off at the left side of the lane and sending up a promising shot that could not seem to help itself from skittering around in fickleness and tantalizing all the spectators.

It rolled off, the horn sounded, and soon Allen’s fine and checkered four-year college career would conclude with him at his locker in a silent room, dutifully answering questions with a skill he had learned to master. “It’s way different than a [regular] loss,” he said, “because with a loss, you know you’ve got something else. There’s two parts in me, one still fighting” for the closing Final Four dream “and the other, ‘Sorry, it’s done.’ That’s why it’s really hard to grasp.”

In between the fickle ball and that, the teams had insisted upon remaining tied, this time 78-78, as the two-minute mark of overtime arrived. In tension, Kansas forged beauty. Graham kicked a pass to Vick amid the zone, and Vick, whom Newman credited rightly with “a great job in the middle,” never touched the ground in redirecting that thing hurriedly to the left corner to Newman. Newman had spent much of the game driving with an unafraid abandon, as “Coach just told us to keep attacking the zone,” and that getting “paint touches, then the three-point line would open up.”

Here the three-point line opened up, and now he lofted one to try to put a pinnacle on his hot March, and let Kansas lead, and let Duke chase, and let Duke fizzle on offense until the score became 85-78, and let Kansas’s heart both intensify and then leap, all of which happened after that prettiest of shots smashed down.