NORMAN, Okla. — Minutes after No. 5-ranked Kansas’ gut-punching defeat Tuesday night at No. 12 Oklahoma, a Jayhawk stepped up to apologize to his teammates.
It just wasn’t the one you probably have in mind.
“I just missed shots, you know,” said Devonte’ Graham, speaking after KU’s 85-80 defeat. “I told the guys in the locker room, ‘You can put this on me,’ just because I felt like I let the team down today.”
A noble gesture from the senior guard, to be sure, and likely an attempt to take heat away from sophomore center Udoka Azubuike, who missed six consecutive free-throw attempts in the game’s final four minutes to single-handedly account for four empty possessions.
Graham’s game, though, wasn’t a disaster — more of a mixed bag, really, with one very notable lapse near the finish.
“I actually thought he played pretty well except for making shots,” KU coach Bill Self said of Graham. “He just shot it miserably — miserably. But I didn’t think he played bad. I thought he guarded pretty well, had (nine) assists, thought he made some pretty good passes and did a good job of running things for us.”
Graham finished with 11 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists, but it took a 4-for-19 shooting performance from the field to get to that point total. Graham also made only 1 of 9 attempts from 3-point range, part of a 10-for-32 effort for the team from beyond the arc.
“I felt like I had good, open shots,” Graham said. “I was just missin’ ’em.”
Graham held his own as the primary defender on OU freshman sensation Trae Young, who was efficient (26 points on 7-for-9 shooting, nine assists) but saw a dramatically dipped output from a volume standpoint. Young entered the game averaging 11 3-point tries but made only 2 of 3 attempts Tuesday.
Containment, Graham said, was the goal on the national player of the year front-runner.
“I tried to,” Graham said. “He still shot 12 free throws, though, so next time I’ll try to keep him off the free-throw line. ... Just playing my man principles, locking in and trying to guard him and keep him from getting those 3s off.”
Graham’s biggest transgression came ahead of OU’s final bucket, a made 3-pointer by Brady Manek that gave the Sooners a five-point lead with 25 seconds left.
Young set the table with a drive at the top of the key. When he was double teamed by Graham and fellow senior guard Svi Mykhailiuk, the freshman kicked it out to the wide-open Manek, who iced the victory. Graham failed to switch to Manek on the play, a lapse he attributed to not hearing that instruction.
Self, though, called it a “mental breakdown” and speculated other factors may have been at play.
“We knew what we were doing,” Self said. “You know, you get hung up, and this happens a lot of times in sports: You know what you’re supposed to do, but you think you can guard Trae better than the guy you’ll be switching with, and so you stay. You don’t react well to it because your competitive juices say, ‘Yeah, but I want him right now.’
“They still could’ve made a shot behind it, but obviously we gave ’em a wide-open look.”
Graham didn’t leave Tuesday’s news conference without weighing in on Azubuike, who finished 1 for 8 on his free-throw attempts and is now shooting 38.1 percent from the line.
Before one of the 7-footer’s failed free throws, Graham approached Azubuike and gave him an aggressive low-five and backside slap, encouraging him to take his time on the attempts. Later, Graham acknowledged it was “definitely frustrating” to come away with points on only one of the team’s final nine possessions primarily because of the “Poke-a-Doke” strategy deployed by OU coach Lon Kruger.
“I guess it was pretty smart on them for doing it,” Graham acknowledged.
Azubuike, Graham said, should bounce back “pretty good” from this, though he’s going to need to have a short-term memory as the Jayhawks (16-4, 6-2 Big 12) prepare for a 3:30 p.m. Saturday contest with Texas A&M (13-7, 2-6 SEC) at Allen Fieldhouse.
“Right now it’s probably going to mess with him a little bit, but I know this week he’ll get in the gym and probably shoot a lot of free throws,” Graham said. “This one’s over with. He’s just gotta focus and move on to the next one.”
LIGHTFOOT SHARP; DE SOUSA STRUGGLES — Azubuike’s backups, Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa, had vastly different performances against the Sooners.
Lightfoot, a 6-8 sophomore forward, helped nullify Azubuike’s first-half foul troubles. He had 6 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in the opening period, playing 14 minutes while Azubuike sat for all but five. Lightfoot’s block of a Young layup attempt with one second left kept the deficit at 43-41.
“Mitch played really well,” Self said. “It gave us a chance after Doke got two fouls on him. ... He’s been pretty good for the last four or five games.”
De Sousa, meanwhile, was ineffective in his fourth collegiate contest, finishing with three turnovers, a foul and no rebounds in one first-half minute. Arguably his lowest moment came when he was dunked on by OU senior forward Khadeem Lattin, a sequence just 19 seconds before the 6-9 freshman forward checked out for good.
“Three turnovers in one minute: two walks and an illegal screen, and they were all good calls,” Self said. “He’s just not quite ready for this.”