New Orleans Who said life was fair? Nobody that I know of.
Ten years from now, people will remember that three freshmen -- including the incomparable Carmelo Anthony -- combined for 50 points as Syracuse edged Kansas University, 81-78, for the 2003 NCAA men's basketball national championship.
No question that Anthony, Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin were awesome on offense. But the real reason Syracuse won the national title wasn't their shooting, it was their free-throw defense.
Who would have believed a team could capture the national title by surrendering 62 free-throw attempts in its two Final Four games? That's an incredible number, really. The Orangemen watched Texas shoot 32 charities in a national semifinal Saturday and Kansas launch 30 foul shots Monday night.
Yet, Texas made only 20 of 32 and Kansas connected on just 12 of 30. That's 32 of 62 or 51.6 percent. Everybody talks about Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense, but nobody talks about coach Jim Boeheim's seemingly impenetrable free-throw defense.
Or as Kansas steed Nick Collison said afterward: "Twelve for 30. If we shoot 50 percent, we tie."
Collison, unfortunately, was one of the victims of the free-throw yips, missing seven of his 10 attempts. If he makes six of 10 instead of three of 10, it's a tie. And if somebody else makes one more the Jayhawks win and Collison is the NCAA Tournament MVP.
As consistent, valiant and durable as Collison was during his last season in a KU uniform, every now and then he would go into a free-throw shooting funk. Remember the Iowa State game in Lawrence? He made only three of 13 free throws that night. And against Arizona State in the NCAA West Regional, he made only four of 10.
Yet, as KU coach Roy Williams, his voice choking with emotion, said afterward: "He goes three for 10 and it bothered him greatly, but it didn't bother his heart. You talk about a frickin' warrior."
Sad to say, the other half of KU's famous senior tandem, guard Kirk Hinrich, also struggled, making just six of 20 shots, including three of 12 from long range.
Still, even with Collison struggling at the foul line and Hinrich below par, Kansas might be planning a parade down Massachusetts Street today if Keith Langford hadn't spent all but five minutes of the second half on the bench because of foul trouble.
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To tell the truth, Syracuse was begging to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the second half -- heck, the Orangemen scored only 28 points in the last 20 minutes after shooting their wad in that 53-point first-half explosion -- and Kansas couldn't capitalize because it couldn't make free throws and because Langford was sitting with the assistant coaches.
If you play your best and lose, that's one thing ... but to end the season realizing Syracuse didn't win so much as you lost makes for a long, hot summer.
First, though, we have to get past Williams and the second Siren call of North Carolina.
Sure, the UNC rumors have been a distraction, but anyone who thinks they had anything to do with the Jayhawks' failing for the fifth time in an NCAA championship game is naive. When players step to the free-throw line, they aren't wondering if their head coach will be around next year.
Is it possible the Jayhawks were afflicted by the dome factor at the free-throw line? It's possible. Even in Saturday's 94-61 flogging of Marquette, KU made just 10 of 17 free throws.
Kansas didn't have a gaudy team free-throw percentage coming into the Final Four, but 69.3 percent wasn't bad. In the Superdome, though, the Jayhawks shot less than 47 percent (22 of 47) at the charity stripe.
"You try to make them," Collison said stoically. "There's nothing else you can do."
And when you don't make them in the national championship game, there's nothing else you can say.