SAN ANTONIO — The echoes of Devonte’ Graham’s dribbles rippled throughout Alamodome, the Kansas basketball guard bringing the ball up the court with an eerily silent Jayhawk contingent sitting behind the team’s bench.
Only eight minutes had passed in Saturday night’s Final Four clash against Villanova, but even at that early point, the message displayed by the on-court digital signage to Graham’s right as he traveled up the court appeared uncomfortably apt.
“The Road Ends Here.”
Battered by a 3-point barrage never before seen in a national semifinal, KU fell into an 18-point hole before seven minutes had passed. Villanova made a Final Four-record-tying 13 treys ... with 23 minutes left to play. The Jayhawks’ season-long road — full of potholes yet on a steep incline this postseason — ended suddenly and abruptly, the campaign and the career of Graham falling from the high they reached into the abyss in what felt like an instant.
Villanova 95, Kansas 79.
“These deals are never good,” KU coach Bill Self said following the rout. “We’ve lost some tough games to end seasons. I don’t think we’ve ever been in a game like this to end a season, but just the fact that, of all the teams that had gotten to a Final Four that we’ve had, this one was probably the least expected one to do it. These guys, after we got punched in the face a few times, we never really recovered to the point that we put any game pressure on them."
“Guys will remember that not being their best, but what they should remember after two or three days is reflect on all the good things they did with kind of a makeshift roster at times, so to speak,” Self said. “I’m real proud of the kids. It wasn’t that they didn’t try. It wasn’t that they didn’t try to prepare. It wasn’t anything like that. It’s just that today was a perfect storm early. Unfortunately for us, we were on the wrong end of it.”
The Wildcats, widely regarded as the best offensive team in the country, made that label look insufficient in a scorching first half in which at one point 21 of their 25 field-goal attempts had come from beyond the arc, with 13 makes among that start from every spot on the court and from a litany of options. Seven Villanova players made 3-pointers in a first half that saw the Wildcats enter the break with a 15-point advantage.
"I thought they were great," Self said of Villanova. "That's as good a team as we've played against that I can remember. And we didn't play very well, obviously, and when we got spread out our game plan went to crap on how we were going to guard certain actions, then we got caught in between and that's the worst thing you can do defensively.
"So credit to them, a superior team, and they were superior. Obviously handled us today."
The Jayhawks (31-8), meanwhile, didn’t record their first 3-point attempt until the 7:19 mark, finishing with just two long-range makes in the opening period.
“You know, in a game like that, in my opinion, we’ve got to have all of our perimeter pretty much clicking or playing at a pretty high level,” Self said. “If I ever watch the tape again, which I doubt I do, I think I’d find out that we didn’t have much aggressiveness in a couple of those spots.”
“Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel seemed an appropriate soundtrack for this contest as it blared over Alamodome’s sound system at halftime, but the blunt force trauma didn’t end at the break.
A 3-pointer by Eric Paschall — the junior forward finished with 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting and four 3-point makes — gave the Wildcats (35-4) sole possession of the record, and they’d finish the contest with 18 made 3s in 40 attempts and an 8:20 p.m. Monday date with Michigan in the national championship game.
A mini-run got the Jayhawks within 14 at 71-57 with just over nine minutes to play, a Malik Newman layup pumping life into the KU contingent for what felt like the first time in an eternity. But Paschall — who else? — put the Wildcats back up 17 with a jumper a minute later, and KU got no closer than the 14-point margin.
As the teams sat on the court during an ensuing timeout, a loud “Eric Paschall” chant roared throughout the facility, recognizing the 6-foot-9, 255-pound load who offered a performance larger than his frame.
The Jayhawks had endured the departure of top freshman Billy Preston before the five-star recruit played a single minute. They’d overcome the MCL sprain to 7-foot sophomore center Udoka Azubuike to win the Big 12 Tournament and advance to the program’s first Final Four since the 2011-12 season. They’d shed the dreaded “soft” label from Self and even brought the pillar of toughness to tears after an overtime victory against Duke in the Elite Eight.
But this? Who could ever overcome something like this?
As the minutes and seconds dropped off the clock and the Jayhawks' resilient season drew closer to ending with an emphatic thud, the at times shell-shocked expressions from Graham and fellow departing guard Svi Mykhailiuk were difficult to ignore.
How much of Villanova's frenzied start from outside was a product of its own sharp shooting, and how much was a result the Jayhawks' defensive lapses? Mykhailiuk struggled to answer that very question in the postgame locker room.
“I think most, I don’t know, uh," Mykhailiuk said. "I don’t know how to answer that question, man.”
Tears streamed down Graham's face as he checked out with 32.2 seconds remaining, concluding his team-high 23-point night. Self consoled him with a fierce headlock.
“He’s an amazing kid, an amazing man,” Self said of Graham. “... The kid’s just worn out. He’s got to be as tired as any player in the country. He gives us everything he’s got. It’s sad for him because I would love for him to be in a one- or two-possession game where the ball was in his hands to go do it or not. He would live for that. But he’s had many opportunities to do that for us this year and he should remember those and not remember this one.”
Graham had run into a buzz saw, a gory conclusion to an outstanding college career.
The road, indeed, had ended.
“We had an unbelievable season,” Graham said. “You know, it’s not the way you want it to end. But even if you lost by one point it will still hurt. We all just, we just need to keep our heads up. It’s going to hurt now, but we’ll be all right.”