WICHITA, Kan. — They hung around for a while, but in the end, it wasn't enough.
No. 16 seed Penn men's basketball fell to No. 1 Kansas 76-60 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Quakers gave the Jayhawks all they could handle, but the talent and athleticism of Kansas, especially that of senior guard Devonte' Graham, pushed them ahead for good.
Graham, the Big 12 Player of the Year, proved why he's considered one of the best players in the nation. He took over towards the end of the first half, pouring in 15 of his 29 points in a seven-minute span. He beat the Quakers from everywhere on the floor, attacking the basket with quickness and ferocity, spotting up from three, and getting to the foul line.
“Just trying to be aggressive," Graham said about his run at the end of the half. "One of the assistant coaches told me I needed to attack more off the ball screen, because they weren’t hedging it, they were just bluffing and falling back, so he told me I can get to the paint."
The game started off as well as Penn coach Steve Donahue could have imagined. In the first 12 minutes, the Quakers built a 21-11 lead behind some of the best defense they've played all year. The Red and Blue refused to give the Jayhawks any easy looks and forced them to take contested shots from well behind the three-point arc.
But that's when the Jayhawks woke up.
"We were just trying to realize that as a good team as they are, to take that punch that they’re gonna give us. They’re gonna go on a run inevitably. What we were focusing on was how we were gonna handle that," sophomore forward AJ Brodeur said.
Led by Graham, Kansas stormed back and closed the half on a 22-5 run. The entire tide of the game seemed to change, as the Jayhawks started playing with the confidence one would expect from one of the top teams in the country. Meanwhile, the Quakers started to miss opportunities and turn the ball over.
“Credit to [Graham], but he realized what was going on in the game, he has a great feel for the game," senior guard Darnell Foreman said. "He got our guys in rotations, he was able to finish at the rim."
Still, Penn went into the halftime break down just 33-26, very much within striking distance.
The floor opened up a bit in the second half, leading to a faster, higher scoring contest. And while the Quakers kept pace with the Jayhawks for most of the half, they were never able to string together a run long enough to put them back in the lead.
Penn's best effort came in a quick two-minute run that started around the 14:30 mark. Junior guard Antonio Woods started Penn off with a three, then senior guard Caleb Wood knocked one down from deep on the next possession. After another defensive stop, Brodeur made a floater to bring Penn within five, causing Kansas coach Bill Self to call a timeout.
Out of the break, Graham stopped the bleeding with a tough layup over Brodeur. After that, a few key Quaker misses over the following minutes gave Kansas breathing room for the rest of the game.
Perhaps the biggest factor down the stretch was free throws. Penn, notoriously a poor free-throw shooting team, struggled mightily from the charity stripe, going just 4 for 12 in the second half.
"I do think foul shots were a big part of this, and this is unfortunate, it was part of our DNA this year, we were able to overcome it," coach Steve Donahue said. "But if we’re gonna beat a team like Kansas, in this environment, you just gotta make them."
Meanwhile, the Jayhawks abandoned their usual strategy of pouring in threes and instead attacked the Quakers down low. They were rewarded with 14 free throws, which they made at a rate of 85.7 percent.
Penn kept at it though, keeping the Kansas lead under double digits until there were just about six minutes left in the game. But a deep three from Graham, followed by an alley-oop to junior guard Lagerald Vick, put the game out of reach for good.
While the Jayhawks are headed to the next round, Penn's season is done. And while it may not have ended with the result the Quakers were looking for, they can keep their heads up.
"I couldn't be more proud of my guys and how we played," Donahue said. "We did everything that I would hope.
"It was a great college basketball game."