Archive for Monday, March 31, 2003

KU earned national title against UA

March 31, 2003

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— They danced on the court, even stiff little Roy Williams scuffing leather across hardwood B-boy style.

They bowed to the crowd, in unison, lined up and put their arms around each other in a camera-snapping curtain call that turned Katella into Broadway.

After 40 minutes of jell Saturday, the gawky, giddy Kansas University basketball team acted like it had just won a national championship.

Which it had.

The road to New Orleans ended here, not in a bayou but a Pond, not next week but Saturday.

My bracket had Oklahoma, but I erased the Sooners even before Sunday's regional finals.

It's over. Kansas will win it. Its 78-75 victory over Arizona in the West Regional final here proved it.

The Wildcats were seemingly the best team remaining, yet the Jayhawks wrestled away every moment.

Arrowhead Pond was the last hostile arena they will face -- thousands of red-decked whiners -- yet the Jayhawks screamed above the noise.

The final minutes will never again be so molar-breaking -- two of their starters were on the bench -- yet the Jayhawks bit back.

"They really pushed the ball down our throat," said Arizona coach Lute Olson.

They will shove a slipper down the gullet of Marquette in the national semifinals.

They will then handle whatever the other bracket delivers, seeing as it will not be packaged with an assortment of Waltons and Gardners.

It's over. None of the remaining tournament teams can match Kansas' skill, smarts and skinned knees.

And nobody else has the mop.

That would be Kirk Hinrich, the senior guard with the messy black hair whose uniform fits him like a Burberry coat fits a Gap Kids hanger.

He looks awkward, he appears slow and Arizona might have better athletes giving them towels.

"But with Hinrich, it's not about athleticism," said the Wildcats' Jason Gardner. "It's about getting the job done."

And so he did, two days after stumbling though the victory over Duke, deciding that his March madness contained one sane truth.

"I decided, if I was going to do down, I was going to go down firing," he said.

Firing through the Arizona zones for 28 points and five assists.

"I was so into it, I couldn't believe it," he said.

Firing into his teammates by constantly grabbing them, urging them, even thumping them on the chest.

"I'm used to it because I played football," said teammate Jeff Graves. "He does the same things a quarterback does."

Down the stretch, he specifically fired on Keith Langford, yanking at his jersey as they walked down the court with Nick Collison and Aaron Miles sidelined by foul trouble.

"I told him, 'Man, look around you, look at this lineup we have out here,'" Hinrich recalled. "I told him, 'I need you to suck it up.' "

Is it any coincidence that Langford was the guy who drove through the middle and sank the runner with 50 seconds remaining to give the Jayhawks a three-point lead?

Was it any surprise that Langford was the guy who then drew the charging foul on Luke Walton at the other end of the court?

"I'm going to have to live with it," Walton said of the mistake. "I probably shouldn't have taken it in so hard."

No, not against a team that continually shoved back, as Hinrich did even in the final seconds, the guy who saved the same by literally saving the game.

Yeah, the game's biggest blocked shot was made by one of the game's smallest players.

And, yeah, Gardner was stunned that the 6-foot-3 guy would even challenge him.

"I thought he would back off," Gardner said of his three-point attempt with 3.8 seconds remaining. "Then here came his hand."

After Gardner got the ball back and missed on a second and final attempt, the buzzer sounded, and Hinrich was carried around the floor by teammates, who understood something special had happened.

He said he loves the way the net makes a necklace. "I'm going to wear it all week," he said.

Every champion needs a mop.

Every champion also needs a coach with a cause, and Kansas has that, too, Roy Williams being basketball's best coach never to win a national title.

"He's really earned his money this year," said Collison, who scored only eight points after scoring 33 on Thursday.

Every champion also needs a memory. Kansas' loss to eventual champion Maryland in last year's semifinals would suffice, no?

"Last year the Final Four was new to us, we were just happy to be there, and it was not a satisfying experience," said Hinrich. "This year, we can see the big picture. We realize what kind of all-out effort it's going to take."

Which leads us to the notion that every champion also needs its moments -- "shining moments," they are called in CBS propaganda -- that remind them precisely what is required.

The Jayhawks had a giant blue bird head full of those moments Saturday, the best in the sweaty final four minutes.

Hinrich missed a shot, but Graves soared over three Wildcats and tipped it in.

Hinrich missed a three-point attempt, but actually leaped and grabbed the rebound that led to a foul of Miles and two more points.

Channing Frye blocked Langford's shot, but Graves grabbed the ball and threw it to Collison for a layup.

You see a pattern here?

By the time they were dancing in a circle across the littered postgame floor, of course, they were all in perfect step.

"This is a great day, but it's not over yet," cried Hinrich.

Oh yes it is.

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