FORT WORTH, Texas — In the midst of his 15th go-round as Kansas basketball coach, Bill Self has mastered the recipe for winning the Big 12.
With one key ingredient missing to this point in the young conference season, though, the Hall of Fame coach has nevertheless found a suitable substitution.
“You need to hold serve at home,” Self said Saturday night, “but when you don’t, you’ve got to go and steal one, and this was a steal.”
The figurative steal was delivered thanks to a literal one from Self’s hard-nosed senior guard.
Devonte’ Graham had a pivotal takeaway with just over two minutes to play and made all eight of his ensuing free-throw attempts the rest of the way, Mitch Lightfoot had a block of a would-be game-tying 3-pointer with 32 seconds remaining, and the No. 10-ranked Jayhawks escaped Ed & Rae Schollmaier Arena with an 88-84 victory over No. 16 TCU.
Graham finished with a game-high 28 points and made 13 of 15 free throws for the Jayhawks (12-3, 2-1 Big 12), who picked up their second conference road victory in two tries and first since last Tuesday’s home setback against Texas Tech.
“To me, Devonte’ just willed us to win,” Self said. “He showed some (guts) tonight. Good God, he was good.”
Graham’s strip of Desmond Bane with 2:02 to play proved the difference-maker, and the point guard recovered from a nasty spill on a hard foul on the ensuing fastbreak layup to drain a pair of free throws — “I just landed on my butt wrong,” said Graham plainly of the fall.
The Jayhawks finished with a season-high 33 attempts from the stripe, an area of concern to this point in the season, with Graham contributing nearly half of the tries.
“He just didn’t let us lose,” Self said of Graham. “He was unreal down the stretch making tough plays and free throws. … I thought Devonte’, that was a competitive dude playing down the stretch.”
Lightfoot, playing significant minutes down the stretch in place of the fouled-out Udoka Azubuike, had a career-high six blocks in 26 minutes, none more important than his rejection of Jaylen Fisher’s 3-point attempt in the game’s final minute.
“Mitch, we couldn’t have won the game without Mitch,” Self said. “Mitch was fabulous.”
Svi Mykhailiuk (20 points) and Azubuike (14 points) rounded out the double-digit scorers for the Jayhawks, who narrowly avoided what would’ve been their first 1-2 start to conference play since the 2005-06 season. Vlad Brodziansky’s 20 points paced four Horned Frogs (13-2, 1-2) in double figures. TCU made 21 of 22 attempts from the free-throw line but went only 3 of 9 from the field in the game’s final three minutes.
Self, who called this the softest KU team he’s ever coached following a mid-December home defeat to Arizona State, indicated he was pleased with the poise the Graham-led Jayhawks showed down the stretch Saturday.
“Toughness is a lot of things,” Self said. “It can be physical obviously, and we’re not that, but it can also be mental, and I thought we showed some toughness tonight by getting behind and making free throws late, making some big shots late. We didn’t rebound worth a flip but we had two or three stops in the last couple minutes that were big shots.”
KU led by as many as 14 in the first half on the heels of a red-hot shooting start — the team made 10 of its first 11 attempts from the field and 5 of its first 6 attempts from 3-point range — but TCU charged back largely in the absence of the 7-foot Azubuike, who was dominant offensively but fouled out for the first time this season after only 13 minutes.
The Jayhawks again lost the rebounding battle, this time 42-28, but managed to limit the Horned Frogs to 14 second-chance points on 19 offensive rebounds.
“By no means is this a physically tough team,” Self said. “Our biggest guy (Azubuike) gets one rebound. You tell me we’re playing TCU and our center’s going to get one rebound in the game, that would be something that would be a concern.”
Brodziansky’s jumper over Azubuike with 5:43 to play gave the Horned Frogs their first lead of the second half, 71-70, but TCU couldn’t extend its lead beyond that. The Jayhawks took the lead for good on a pair of free-throw makes from Dallas native Marcus Garrett with three minutes left, and Graham took over from there.
Graham and Mykhailiuk played a game-high 38 minutes for KU, and while Self tried to buy the former a first-half breather, he understands that isn’t a formula for success for the depth-concerned Jayhawks. After the game, Self suggested the team may need to run a different offense or, while he “hate(s) to say this,” deploy more zone defense to keep Graham’s legs fresh.
“We can’t play without him right now,” Self said of Graham, who appeared in all 40 minutes in the loss to Texas Tech. “We need Malik (Newman) to be able to play that position or somebody to play that position for us. This may be the hand we’re dealt and the hand he’s dealt all year long.”
With an 8 p.m. Tuesday home tilt against Iowa State (9-5, 0-3) next on the schedule, Graham was asked if he senses a growing sentiment from KU fans that this could be the year the team’s national record-tying 13 consecutive Big 12 regular-season title streak comes to an end.
“No chance,” Graham said. “Our fans? Maybe other teams’, but I feel that’s every year that everybody doubts us and thinks, ‘Oh, Kansas is not gonna do it this year.’ But we a family, we stick in our huddle, our coaching staff , we all believe in each other, ourselves. We just go out night-in, night-out and compete, and hopefully at the end of the year it’ll work out for us.”