By Dave Skretta
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kansas guard Elijah Johnson emerged from a huddle late in the game with a smile on his face.
The Jayhawks had been here before, down and nearly out, and time and again they’d managed to rally to victory. There was no reason to believe this would be any different.
“No one told us we were going to lose except the scoreboard. That was our mind-set,” Johnson said, reflecting on the closing minutes Monday night. “We said, ‘Hey, if they’re going to beat us, they’re going to remember us. They going to feel the last of us,’ and that’s what we did.”
Right down to the bitter end.
Only this time, the hole was too deep. The opponent was too talented.
After whittling an 18-point lead to five, Kansas finally succumbed to mighty Kentucky in the national championship game. The Wildcats made enough free throws in crunch time to preserve a 67-59 victory, bringing the Jayhawks’ dream season to a disappointing close.
Kansas had made a habit of waiting until things were dire to kick it into gear. It had walked a tightrope all the way to the Final Four and had finally fallen off.
“We fought to the end,” Johnson said, sniffling in the locker room afterward. “A lot of teams would’ve gave up when they got down 14 at halftime. I felt that was our time to strike, and I felt like that’s what we did. We got the game close and never gave up.”
Just as the Jayhawks did against Missouri earlier this season, and Purdue and North Carolina State and Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. The only difference this time? The outcome.
“They had us on our heels and really controlled everything the first 20 minutes,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We got the game we wanted it. It was a muddy track, and we had opportunities to make some plays to cut it to a one-possession game late.
“We came up short,” he said, “but I don’t think we lost. I think they just beat us.”
Kansas hung tough through the opening minutes, getting the kind of grind-it-out game that it wanted. But the Wildcats eventually turned it into a track meet and a brutally efficient series midway through the first half turned a 23-17 lead into a 39-21 advantage.
It was all uphill for the Jayhawks from there.
Thomas Robinson had 18 points and 17 rebounds for Kansas, the All-American doing his best to spark a rally. But the junior forward’s points came largely on volume — he was 6 of 17 from the field, harassed and harangued all game by Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.
“I still don’t think he’s Superman. Just a great player,” Robinson said of the tournament’s most outstanding player, who beat him out for national player of the year.
Kansas eventually got its spark, and it came from Taylor, the senior guard whose streaky shooting has been a sore spot for fans throughout his career.
He knocked down a 3-pointer to get things going, and added a three-point play moments later, before two free throws by Robinson trimmed the Kentucky lead to 59-52.
“They’d been in that situation before,” Davis said. “They just kept fighting.”
Johnson added a 3-pointer as Kansas climbed further out of the deficit, and Robinson made two more foul shots as Kentucky coach John Calipari began to look nervous for the first time all night.
“You have to give Kansas credit,” he said. “They didn’t stop.”
Self never stopped, either, marching up and down in front of Kansas’ bench. He exhorted his team to play defense and convert on offense. At one point, he reminded his team that there are no “13-point plays,” the same message he drilled home two nights earlier against Ohio State.
The veteran Jayhawks chipped away until Taylor missed a shot with about a minute left.
Robinson squandered an opportunity to make it a one-possession game when he lost a loose ball along the baseline, and perhaps his team’s best chance slipped away with it.
“We were right there,” Taylor said. “We were right there.”
Instead, Kentucky managed to coax the final few minutes off the clock, making the free throws down the stretch that Calipari’s Memphis team missed against Kansas in the 2008 title game.
As fireworks blasted and streamers rained from the rafters, Kansas slowly trudged off the elevated floor inside the Superdome. A team that once rallied from 19 points down to beat Missouri and that had survived so many nip-and-tuck battles in the NCAA tournament was left to wonder how things had gone so sour so early when it mattered most.
And what might have been had they kept it close the entire way.
“We just came up empty,” Self said, “but there’s no team I’ve been around that’s been able to take whatever situation is dealt it and responded favorably, and there’s no team I’ve been around that’s represented a university and themselves and their families as well as this one.”