Kansas left shattered after comeback bid falls short in championship game loss to Kentucky
NEW ORLEANS – Long after it was over, everything was still a blur, so no one can remember who’d done the yelling. But time had been stopped in the national championship game, with a 15-point Kentucky lead having dropped to nine and about to hit seven when one of the Kansas Jayhawks shouted into the Superdome roar.
“This is how we make our run!”
“This is what we do!”
Looking back it seems like such a ridiculous thought: how Kansas’s players believed they could really score a flurry of baskets against the best team in the country – one so good its whole starting lineup could shake David Stern’s hand at the start of summer. But having done the same to Ohio State and Purdue and Missouri and Iowa State and whoever else held a lead on them in a game this year made the absurd seem possible.
Conner Teahan, the Jayhawks senior guard, glanced at the Kentucky players and wondered if something was about to happen. The Wildcats were all freshman and sophomores – players who for all their magnificent talent and wonderful success had never been in such a situation. Not with time running down, a team making a run and the national championship at stake.
Maybe Kentucky would panic
Maybe Kentucky would collapse
Maybe magic would happen one last time.
Four years ago, as a freshman, Teahan was on a Kansas team that trailed Memphis by nine with 2:12 left in this very same game. And the Jayhawks came back to win. That was against John Calipari, the man who nervously paced the Kentucky sideline Monday night, alternately sitting upon and abandoning a wooden stool set up for his use. On this night, 3:51 remained in the game, almost twice as much as in the Memphis, and the Jayhawks trailed by only seven.
Teahan let himself think back to the feeling of that night, the screaming crowd, the swirling confetti, the trophy they clutched, the sudden popularity that came when they moved around campus for the next several weeks. And for a moment he thought the same thing as so many of his teammates:
Why not would be answered seconds later on an Elijah Johnson turnover. It would be squashed by free throws the Kentucky players made. It would disappear in the three pointers that didn’t fall. It got swatted away by a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist block. Why not would seem like the dumbest idea a team could have in this Final Four. But at that instant, when Kentucky was suddenly fragile and the Jayhawks were running and as the numbers changed quickly in their favor, they burned with hope.
Their coach, Bill Self, told them they might find themselves here when he spoke to them in the halftime locker room. The Jayhawks kept telling each other they could still find a way to win even though they trailed by 14 to the greatest collection of players the country has seen in years.
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They say this a lot to each other. They say they weren’t even supposed to be here at the Final Four. Many were stunned they came back to beat Ohio State on Saturday and the fact the Kentucky lead was in single digits seemed a feat in itself.
But to Kansas’s junior forward Kevin Young, there wasn’t any doubt. They were going to win. He was sure of it.
“A couple more possessions and the game would have been won,” he later said as he sat at his Superdome locker.
This was, of course, a foolish thought. Kansas was not winning this game. There would be no final comeback, no Kentucky implosion, no wonderful stream of Jayhawks baskets, no trophy, no parade back home.
“They cut off our run quicker than we expected,” junior guard Travis Releford would say sometime long later.
And so they were surprised when the end came even though it should have been obvious for those final 39 seconds. In the stands behind them, Ashley Judd waved her hands, the Kentucky students sang, fireworks sounding like artillery fire exploded from the scoreboard.
Then came the long walk up the carpeted tunnel, around the corner and toward their locker room. It must have felt like a kind of death march, one that would never end as they had to stare into the mass of dancing Kentucky fans.
Thomas Robinson, their star – the one who shot only 6-for-17 in the game they needed him most – pulled his jersey over his head as he walked. His shoulders shook. From under his shirt you could hear him weep. Walking beside him was Danny Manning, the great Kansas star who in 1988 pulled the Jayhawks to a title more improbable than this would have been if they had won on Monday. Manning put his arm on Robinson’s shoulders. There was little he could say.
Releford walked with his arm on Johnson’s shoulder. Like Robinson, Johnson pulled his jersey over his head. He cried too.
“Keep your head up,” Releford told him. “Nobody expected us to be here. Be happy we got this far.”
Only who could believe that on the night they let themselves believe the impossible was about to happen.
More NCAA tournament coverage on the Yahoo! network:
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• Video: The Fray’s dreadful national anthem performance | The Fray on Y! Music
• Y! Sports Radio: Kentucky guard Darius Miller ‘feels amazing’ after winning title