KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Big 12 tournament championship game on Saturday was about sending messages.
Like the message from the Jayhawks to close the first half of an 81-70 victory over West Virginia as Devonte' Graham shoveled an alley-oop in transition to Silvio De Sousa, who rattled the rim in front of the Mountaineers’ bench at the Sprint Center.
“Don’t underestimate us.”
Or the message from WVU forward Sagaba Konate to anyone who attempted to get in his way early, particularly Kansas freshman De Sousa.
“You can’t stop me.” Konate repeated it -- or a similar iteration -- often in the first half.
No. 9 Kansas and 18th-ranked West Virginia staged a frenetic showcase of Big 12 basketball after a banner regular season that figures to place at least seven league teams in the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday.
"It was a fabulous college basketball game," said KU coach Bill Self, whose team won its 11th Big 12 tournament title in 22 years. "We played about flawless, for the most part, down the stretch."
For anyone who watched Saturday, the message was clear: This league is far from finished.
“There may be 25 teams out there that can make the Final Four,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said before Saturday's tip in Kansas City. “We have teams among them.”
Kansas and West Virginia sit atop the list. The Jayhawks (27-7) appear in prime position to land the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. West Virginia (24-10) did not damage its tournament résumé Saturday despite losing in the title game for the third consecutive season.
The KU backcourt trio of Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman, the tournament's most outstanding player, combined for 54 points, standing toe-to-toe with West Virginia’s Jevon Carter, a defensive stalwart, and Daxter Miles Jr., who scored 25 to lead everyone.
And though Konate was the latest big man to exploit Kansas in the absence of center Udoka Azubuike, who’s expected back from a knee injury next week, De Sousa, the rookie who’s growing up fast for Self, contributed a career-best 16 points on 8-of-8 shooting.
After the Jayhawks shot 35 free throws to West Virginia’s two in a Feb. 17 comeback win at home, the Mountaineers could not point to any such disparity as a reason for their defeat Saturday. West Virginia made all 10 of its attempts, while Kansas finished 4-of-8 from the line.
Clearly, WVU and its fans had not forgotten the previous meeting.
The Mountaineers lobbied the officials early, and their work might have paid off as physical play was allowed. When West Virginia settled into its game, it used a 10-0 run midway through the first half to take control.
Kansas answered, cutting the WVU lead to 34-33 at halftime on De Sousa’s monstrous dunk.
West Virginia stayed in command for much of the second half, leading by seven with less than 10 minutes to play. But a 17-3 Kansas run, capped by Graham’s red-hot shooting, put Kansas over the top in the final five minutes.
"We locked in and started making plays," said Graham, the Big 12 Player of the Year. "It was just fun to be out there."
The Jayhawks made 18 of 25 shots in the second half, including 9 of 13 from 3-point range.
"That's as well as we played, maybe, all year long," Self said.
Up next, the Jayhawks and the Big 12 get an opportunity to deliver their message on a larger stage. No matter the conference's head count Sunday among the 68-team field, Self said, it's important for the league to represent well.
"Our league has played out this year to probably be as tough as it’s ever been," he said. "Usually that should translate to more success in the postseason.
"[But] once you get into the tournament, there are going to be coin-flip games. We need to close those games out."