LAWRENCE — The play stuck with Devonte’ Graham for quite a while.
With less than a minute to go and Kansas trailing Villanova 56-54 in the 2016 Elite Eight, Graham, then a sophomore, had the ball — and the game, perhaps — in his hands.
Then, all of a sudden, he didn’t.
A tipped dribble led to a controversial fifth foul and Graham was relegated to helpless bystander as the Jayhawks were upset 64-59 in the South Regional final.
“At the time definitely for a couple weeks after that, all you think about is that call,” Graham said Tuesday during the Jayhawks’ media session in Allen Fieldhouse. “It’s over now.”
And yet, it’s not. Graham and the Jayhawks will get a chance to exorcise those demons from 2016 when they face Villanova at 7:50 p.m. Saturday in a Final Four clash in San Antonio.
Last time, it was a berth in the Final Four on the line. This time, it’s a spot in the national championship game.
And for Graham, at least, that’s the main motivation. Not revenge.
“You’ve got more to play for,” Graham said. “That game doesn’t necessarily motivate me, thinking about it. It’s just they’re the next team up in the way of us trying to get a national championship.”
It’s hard not to look back to the 2016 showdown, however, and find plenty more motivation for the Jayhawks.
As the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in 2016, Kansas was looking every bit the favorite to win the national championship going into the regional final. The Jayhawks blasted Austin Peay 105-79 in the first round and cruised past Connecticut 73-61 in the second round.
A highly anticipated showdown with Mark Turgeon and Maryland in the Sweet 16 became a 79-63 Kansas romp, setting up the clash with Villanova.
The Jayhawks rolled Villanova 72-57 on their way to the 2008 national championship, but the 2016 meeting became a slugfest. The Wildcats completely shut down Jayhawk All-American Perry Ellis, holding KU’s leading scorer to just four points on five shots.
For the most part, Kansas couldn’t bail out its star from the perimeter as Frank Mason and Wayne Selden combined to go just 1 of 12 from beyond the arc, though each finished with 16 points. Graham, however, hit 5 of 9 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 17 points.
Yet the way the game ended soured Graham’s performance.
With the Jayhawks down two with less than a minute to go, Graham brought the ball up the court with a chance for KU to tie or lead. He was met at mid-court by a Wildcat double team and, in trying to split the two defenders, the ball was tipped away.
Graham dove for the loose ball, in the process sliding into Villanova’s Josh Hart. He was whistled for his fifth foul and had to watch the final 34 seconds from the bench as Villanova put Kansas away at the free-throw line.
It was agonizing.
“It was tough,” Graham said. “You never want to foul out in a game like that, with a chance to go to the Final Four. You kind of felt like you let your team down.”
Kansas still had its chances after Mason hit a 3-pointer with 27 seconds left to pull the Jayhawks within 58-57 and again after his layup with 17 seconds left made it 60-59. But Villanova hit 4 of 4 free throws in the last 14 seconds and Kansas turned it over twice in the final six seconds.
“I think Perry had like five (four) points and we couldn’t make a three,” said KU senior Svi Mykhailiuk, the only other holdover on this year’s team from that game. “It was a hard game to win when you don’t make shots and your leading scorer has (four) points.”
“It was a one-possession game,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “That was a tough game. We were the one seed. We were the favorite. The roles are reversed a little bit this time around.
“That was a game we felt like going into that game — if you remember, we’d played so well in the tournament. We were great in the first-round game, great against Connecticut and great against Maryland. And things just didn’t fall right for us in that game. Hopefully we’ll have a reversal of those things and maybe we’ll get some good fortune this time.”
The KU-Villanova series is tied 3-3 overall and the two programs will start a home-and-home series next year.
Graham would like nothing more than to give Kansas the edge Saturday night. And ease some of the pain of 2016.
“Coming back and doing it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “You go through stuff like that to get to this moment. I’m just glad I went through it.”