Aldrich still awestruck after gem

Freshman 'best player in the game' for stretch, coach says

? Cole Aldrich still might not fully understand just what he did.

Here’s the 6-foot-11 mound of a freshman forward. He just scored eight points and grabbed seven pivotal rebounds in Kansas University’s 84-66 national semifinal victory over North Carolina on Saturday night. His teammates gave him the hero’s welcome into the locker room, full of hoots, hollers and high fives. He even went to the interview podium with limelight regulars Brandon Rush and Darnell Jackson.

But still, same old Aldrich, seeming in awe of everything.

“It was a blast,” he gushed about piecing together much of his memorable night against college basketball’s best player, UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough. “I don’t even know what to say, because he’s such a great player, and just being able to be on the same court, in the Final Four, in San Antonio, playing against him, it’s a huge honor.”

Maybe, at some point, it’ll set in. For those who watched it, though, it’s hard to deny Aldrich definitely had the upper hand in that matchup for the bulk of his 13 first-half minutes.

“I thought Cole was the best player in the game for a stretch in the first half,” KU coach Bill Self said. “He may have won the game for us as much as anybody because he bought us so many great minutes.”

OK, quick rewind.

Just over four minutes into the game, senior Sasha Kaun, KU’s top post performer so far in the postseason, picked up his second personal foul. Instead of going small, Self turned to Aldrich, KU ahead 11-6 at the time.

Less than 10 minutes later, the Jayhawks were ahead 40-12, Aldrich having played a huge role in that.

His board work drew the ravest of reviews. His first dent in that stat column came three minutes into his session on the floor. He followed a Sherron Collins miss with a gentle tip-in, making it a 19-10 game.

Over the next several minutes, he blocked three shots, bringing his season total to 33, scored a couple more buckets and literally ripped a rebound away from Hansbrough.

“I wasn’t gonna let it go,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I got it, and I was like ‘He’s gonna try his dangdest to get this, and I won’t let him.’

“We’ve got four really good big guys, and I don’t know if he’s quite gone against four big guys like that. We just tried to double the post, constantly deny the post and keep him off the glass.”

Aldrich played just four minutes after the half, but ultimately served as a bridge of sorts, allowing Kaun to avoid further foul trouble before coming back in the second half for a couple of key buckets.

Self has raved for weeks that no one on the roster has shown as much overall improvement over the course of the season than Aldrich, who most notably has improved his body and stamina.

Now he’s given himself a good springboard into what could be a sophomore season in 2008-09 loaded with expectations. He’s just got to do what he did Saturday one more time.

“(We were yelling) ‘Yeah, Cole, great job, you know we’re gonna need you do do it again Monday for us,'” Sherron Collins recalled of the postgame locker room. “And we’re gonna need him. He’s a big body. He’s so young, but he’s good.”