New Orleans — One of the easiest shots in basketball proved the most difficult for Kansas University to make Monday night at the Superdome.
Free throws -- unguarded 15-foot shots -- proved the main culprit in the Jayhawks' 81-78 loss to Syracuse in the NCAA national championship at the Superdome.
"If we shoot 50 percent, which is a horrible percentage, we tie them. It's obvious it was the biggest factor in the game," KU senior Nick Collison said after the Jayhawks went 12-of-30 from the line.
Collison, who grabbed 21 rebounds and scored 19 points in helping Kansas nearly complete a wild comeback from a game-high deficit of 18 points, missed seven of 10 charities. Foul-plagued Keith Langford (19 points) missed five of 10 free throws, and Jeff Graves (16 points, 16 boards) misfired five times out of seven.
"When I think back on it, yeah you are going to say, 'Gosh make a free throw,'" KU coach Roy Williams said.
Even with the free-throw woes, the Jayhawks (30-8), who trailed Syracuse (30-5) by 12 points with 5:11 left, had several chances to tie and force overtime at the end.
First, Kirk Hinrich -- who sprained his ankle with 12:33 left, yet continued to play despite some discomfort -- missed a deep, straight on three-pointer with :15.2 remaining and KU trailing, 81-78.
"I thought it was money," said Hinrich, who missed nine of 12 threes en route to 16 points. "I felt for sure it was in. It just didn't go."
The shot actually appeared to go halfway down before kicking out.
"It will bother me forever," Hinrich said of the miss. "You dream about that shot. You practice that situation. It's hard to simulate it. I had the shot. It was a little bit farther out than I wanted."
Syracuse's Hakim Warrick rebounded, was fouled, and promptly missed two free throws with 13 seconds to play, giving the Jayhawks another possession to tie.
Hinrich, who was well guarded deep behind the three-point line out top, kicked to Michael Lee in the corner. Lee, who made one of five threes and scored five points -- KU was 4-of-20 shooting three-points to Syracuse's 11-of-18 -- accepted the pass with about three ticks left, squared up and had his three rejected hard by Warrick, the ball careening out of bounds at 1.5 seconds.
Warrick, who stands 6-foot-8 appeared to come out of nowhere in the 2-3 zone to make the rejection of the 6-3 Lee.
"I felt I had time to get off the shot," Lee said. "I feel I should have at least got the ball off. He blocked it so fast, I didn't even know it was a block. I thought it flew out of bounds over my head.
"I was open and was glad Kirk passed it to me. I was real confident," he added. "I told myself if I got a shot late in the game, I'd knock it down."
Hinrich wasn't second guessing his pass. He'd have had to jack up a three-pointer from NBA range with hands in his face.
"I'd passed it to Mike if I had to do it over again," Hinrich said. "He's a good shooter and had it toed up. He (Warrick) was in the lane when I passed it, but he's so long and athletic. When they do that, it's tough."
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Williams had no problem with the pass, either.
"I think Kirk was covered and Michael was wide open," Williams said. "I said yesterday Syracuse's players are like NFL defensive backs. They chase and cover a lot of ground. They closed on it like defensive backs."
KU had one final chance to tie, Hinrich launching a long three-pointer from the side after accepting an inbounds pass, the shot missing badly and Syracuse celebrating coach Jim Boeheim's first title.
"Yes," Hinrich said, asked if he thought he'd run off a screen effectively enough to hit the last-second shot, "but they had a lineup of 6-8, 6-9 guys who get out on you fast. I didn't get a good look."
KU used a furious 14-4 run to slice a 76-64 deficit to 80-78 with 39 seconds left. Kueth Duany hit one of two free throws at :24 to give the Orangemen a three-point lead late and set up KU's final flurry of shots. Earlier, KU used an 8-0 run to pull within 55-52 at 17:08.
Down 61-58 at 13:41, KU missed nine of 10 shots and six straight free throws as the Orangemen pushed their lead to 72-60.
"We missed a lot of free throws, but also a lot of shots, too, and committed turnovers," said Langford, who disagreed with his fifth and final foul -- when he was tooted for hacking Billy Edelin down low after a freak KU turnover in which Langford lost the ball after he and Hinrich collided.
Langford left with KU down, 72-64.
"Of course I'm going to say it was a terrible call," Langford said. "I tried to let him go, but he tripped and I got called. I don't think I touched him, but the official did."
Langford guarded Syracuse standout Carmelo Anthony, who scored 13 of his 20 points in the first half while helping the Orangemen to an improbable 53-42 halftime lead.
Gerry McNamara, not Anthony, was the KU killer early, however, scoring all 18 of his points off incredible 6-of-8 three-point shooting. Syracuse canned 10 of 13 threes in the first half.
"I told them at halftime we had to play better defense," said Williams, whose Jayhawks were down by as many as 18 -- 47-29 -- following five threes by McNamara. "I said, 'We've got to cover the three-point shot.' Two or three times we did not get a hand in his face."
The Jayhawks hit two of seven threes in the first half and 16 of 34 shots total for 47.1 percent to Syracuse's overall percentage of 55.6. For the game, KU hit 43.7 percent to Syracuse's 47.6 mark.
McNamara canned five of six threes and Syracuse eight of nine total in storming to a 47-29 lead with five minutes left in the half.
But KU, which had so much trouble most of the half against the Syracuse 2-3 zone, finally woke up thanks to Langford, who scored six points in an 8-0 run that cut the gap to 47-37 at 2:41.
KU then had a controversial call erase big-time momentum. An Aaron Miles hoop and apparent three-point play was wiped out when Miles was called for charging, instead of a Syracuse blocking foul. McNamara on the next possession iced a three giving the Orangemen a 50-37 lead. Miles coincidentally would have another bad break down the stretch, his three failing to drop. Graves missed a follow slam with 39 seconds left and KU trailing, 80-77.
Still, KU scored three straight points and cut the deficit to 50-40 with a minute left in the first half. KU could have scored more, getting just a point when Anthony was called for an intentional foul for hammering Langford on a layup try.
Langford hit one free throw, and KU didn't score on the ensuing possession. Anthony made KU pay by hitting a three at :15.
In the final analysis, Syracuse had the stat that counted most -- the 81-78 tally on the scoreboard.
"It would have been nice. It would have been a nice story, but the ending wasn't there," Collison said of the Jayhawks winning the title in a season that started with three losses in KU's first six games.
Williams had no complaints.
"Even though we lost, God, I'm so fortunate to have coached them," Williams said of Collison and Hinrich. "Syracuse has great kids, I'm sure, but I don't know them. I know right now I wouldn't trade my kids even though Syracuse won the game."