Birmingham, Ala. Curses, foiled again.
Kansas University's wildly successful senior class -- Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard, Jerod Haase and B.J. Williams, Jayhawks who accounted for 115 victories against 21 losses in four fun-filled years -- failed to reach a Final Four.
"I told them life is not necessarily fair. It's been a dream season, but we didn't reach out final dream," KU coach Roy Williams said after the Jayhawks' 85-82 loss to Arizona in a Sweet 16 battle on Friday night at Jefferson Civic Center.
The 1996-97 Jayhawks, who won the first Big 12 title by four games, who claimed a school-record 22 wins to open the season, who notched 29 regular-season victories and who topped the AP poll the past 15 weeks, saw their season officially end when three Jayhawk three-pointers failed to drop in the final eight seconds.
"This would be frustrating if we gave up, if we did not give our all, if we quit. We did not do those things," KU point guard Vaughn said. "We feel we're the best team in the tournament, but the best team in our eyes didn't win."
Vaughn was involved in a wild, final flurry of activity that nearly saw KU wipe out a 13-point deficit in the final 3 1/2 minutes.
Down 75-62 at 3:29 following a pair of three-pointers by Michael Bibby, a trey by Miles Simon and a two by Michael Dickerson, the Jayhawks went on a furious 20-8 run and trailed 83-82 at :21.1
Bibby, UA's freshman point guard who scored a team-leading 21 points (Michael Dickerson had 20 and Miles Simon 17), hit a pair of free throws at :18.2 to up the margin to 85-82.
Billy Thomas, who hit two threes during the last-gasp run, missed a three at :08. The ball was batted to Vaughn out top, who passed to Ryan Robertson, who missed a three at :05. Raef LaFrentz, who scored 14 points, then rebounded at :04. He dribbled to the corner, missing a three at the buzzer.
Vaughn, who caught a long tap out, appeared to have an open shot, but instead dished to Robertson, who scored 14 points on 4-of-7 three-point shooting.
"The ball came off the rim long. I was not sure I was behind the three-point line," Vaughn said. "So I kicked it to Ryan. I hoped for a kickback, but you have to make those decisions in a split second. He had a shot and it definitely had a chance to go in."
Robertson, who was valiant with eight points in the 20-8 run, leaned in as he took the jumper.
"I was covered when I caught it. I had to get through some people," Robertson said. "Unfortunately it didn't go in."
The carom plopped into LaFrentz's hands.
"The last time I looked at the clock was 18 seconds," LaFrentz said. "I felt it in my hands and knew there were less than five seconds left. I tried to find Ryan and Jacque. They were guarded so I dribbled out. I thought it was good when it left my hand, but it missed by a lot."
It ended the furious comeback and the season as the Jayhawks finished 34-2.
"We made a fantastic comeback, but they were tough enough to make plays and make free throws at the end," KU coach Williams said of the Wildcats, who hit 17 of 27 free throws overall, six of six in the final 1:52.
KU hit just eight of 13 free throws.
"The key is they were so much more effective getting the ball inside," Williams said. "We made a living all year from the free throw line. We didn't get to the line and no way am I talking about officiating. They did a great job throwing it inside. We were a little too tentative throwing it in there and didn't do a very good job getting the position we wanted.
"We knew their quickness would be a factor against our size."
LaFrentz attempted and made his first shot with 6:41 left in the first half. Scot Pollard was 0-for-1 the first half and didn't score all night in 20 foul-plagued minutes. Still, KU, which hit six of 11 threes the first half, trailed just 38-36 at the break.
Paul Pierce, who scored a team-leading 27 points, scored 11 the first half.
LaFrentz erupted for four quick points, while Pierce had three in a 7-2 run to open the second half and give KU a 43-40 lead at 18:00. However, Arizona then went on a 15-4 run to grab a 55-47 lead at 11:45.
It didn't help that Pollard picked up his fourth foul at 16:50, Vaughn his fourth at 9:25 and the fact that Haase could play just 14 minutes because of excruciating pain in his right wrist.
Down 61-53 at 9:25 as Vaughn exited, Pierce scored seven points in a 9-3 run that cut the gap to 64-62 at 7:25. That's when Bibby and Simon hit consecutive threes to open a vital 11-0 run. In that span, KU missed four shots and committed four turnovers.
"They outplayed us," LaFrentz said. "They didn't want it more. No team in the country wanted it more than this team. It was a good opportunity to slip away."
Turnovers hurt. KU had nine in the first nine minutes and finished with 20 to UA's 11.
"They came out aggressive. I don't think that surprised us," Pollard said. "They had a lot of steals and took us out of our offense a lot of times. It is a surprise to me they beat us. Right now it stings a lot."