By the time Malik Newman, the Kansas sophomore, received the ball in the corner, open and already beginning his shooting motion, with the Midwest Regional final versus Duke tied and fewer than two minutes left in overtime, the outcome of the play felt predetermined.
If you drop a hammer, does it not fall to the ground? If you give Newman an open corner 3, does it not find its way through the rim?
It does, and it did — it was Newman’s fifth 3-pointer of the game, all after halftime. He finished with 32 points, none more crucial than that 3 that put Kansas up by 81-78, a lead the Jayhawks would not relinquish. They had spent months working out how to get Newman those corner-3s, and when they succeeded on Sunday, the result was a massive celebration in front of thousands of their fans.
Kansas, a No. 1 seed, beat second-seeded Duke, 85-81, and will head to the Final Four next weekend in San Antonio, where they will play another top seed, Villanova. The winner of that game will play the winner of Loyola-Michigan for the national championship in April.
Grayson Allen, the senior who on Sunday completed his tenure as the latest in a long line of Duke villains, nearly won the game for the Blue Devils at the end of regulation with a drive and a shot that banked off the backboard and rimmed out as time expired.
“That was an epic game,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said. “One of the best ones, if not the best, that I’ve ever been a part of.”
Entering Sunday’s regional final, Kansas’ record in round of 8 games under Self was 2-5, including losses at this stage in each of the past two seasons. If there was a persistent knock on college basketball’s most consistent program, whose streak of 29 consecutive N. C. A. A. tournament berths is the longest ever, it was: always good, rarely great.
It’s heartbreaking,” said senior guard Devonte’ Graham, who started in both losses the previous two seasons.
“You think about it all the time,” he added.
Though the lower seed, Duke was favored by oddsmakers on Sunday. All five players in its starting lineup, four of whom are freshmen, could be first-round N.B.A. draft picks.
But the young Blue Devils were up against an overwhelmingly pro-Jayhawks crowd. You could hear it in the roars when calls went against Kansas, as they often did.
The Jayhawks found some good fortune when the Duke freshman Wendell Carter Jr. — not its most heralded player, but quite possibly its most valuable — ran into early foul trouble. Kansas also got a little indirect luck when its own starting big man, Udoka Azubuike, got into early foul trouble as well, forcing the Jayhawks into a 3-pointer-centric strategy that proved just the thing to beat Duke’s zone defence.
Despite a size disadvantage, Kansas dominated the boards, outrebounding Duke by 47-32. Though Duke’s freshman big man Marvin Bagley III, a likely lottery pick, had a big game — 16 points on nine shots, with 10 rebounds — it may have been bigger had Kansas not aggressively double-teamed him when he got the ball down low.
Both teams came out cold; Duke’s first two 3-point attempts did not even hit the rim. Like heavyweights feeling each other out in the early rounds, Duke and Kansas deployed several different lineups, trying to figure out how to beat the other.
The freshman point guard Trevon Duval was the quickest to hit his stride, emerging as Duke’s best player in the first half. In the final minute he had a dunk and sank a jumper, giving him 13 points and Duke a 36-33 lead. He finished as Duke’s scoring leader, with 20 points and six assists.
But Newman’s performance was a product of both Kansas’ planning and his natural abilities. For months, the Jayhawks had run drills in which they placed Xs at the corners; the idea, the assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said, was to spread the floor.
In the first half, they noticed that Duke’s zone was more of a 3-2, with three guards up top, as opposed to the more-common 2-3. At halftime, they made a concerted effort to place a man in the corner to draw one of Duke’s two big men away from the basket.
From there, the key to the zone-break was Vick, whose job was to “flash” to the foul line, get the ball and make a play. On Newman’s final 3, he said, “I had the shot, but I saw Malik open.”