Agony at the end: Top-seeded Kansas falls to No. 8 seed Arkansas in 72-71 heartbreaker at NCAA Tournament

Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) hangs his head as he and the coaching staff leave the court following the Jayhawks’ 72-71 loss to Arkansas on Saturday, March 18, 2023 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Nick Krug

Des Moines, Iowa — For a team that tied its entire identity to pulling out tough games no matter how dire the circumstances, the final scenes of a wild and crazy 2022-23 Kansas basketball season looked odd.

It also seemed fitting.

If this ride was going to end, this was probably the way it was always destined to be.

Standing at the free throw line down by a pair with three seconds to go in their season, Kansas junior Jalen Wilson tried to miss the second of two free throws, hoping someone in white would get the rebound and tie the game.

Instead, the shot banked in, Arkansas quickly inbounded the ball and the top-seeded Jayhawks left Wells Fargo Arena on the wrong end of a 72-71 defeat.

“I knew when it went in that it was going to be tough to get a foul. Kind of just draining,” Wilson said of his emotions in that moment, which showed in the way his head sunk into his shoulders. “It shouldn’t have even got that close.”

The fact that it did was a credit to Arkansas’ fight and KU’s inability to execute in a couple of the smallest but most critical moments of the game.

The Jayhawks (28-8) trailed for just 1:41 all game and led by 10 after a 3-pointer by freshman Gradey Dick splashed through with 12:35 to play.

Box score: Arkansas 72, Kansas 71

Photo Gallery: Kansas basketball vs. Arkansas

From there, the game turned drastically. Arkansas (22-13) ripped off an 11-0 run over the next 3:30 of game action and the Razorbacks took their first lead since 2-0 on a 3-pointer by Jordan Walsh that put them ahead 52-51 with 8:54 to play.

The Jayhawks answered quickly with a 3-pointer by Dajuan Harris Jr., (12 points, five assists, three turnovers in 35 minutes) who played the second half on a sprained ankle, and that set up the sensational sprint to the finish.

Every play, every possession and, as it turned out, every point mattered. Both teams played like that was the case, and Saturday’s slugfest looked a lot more like a classic unfolding on a Final Four stage than a second-round plea for survival.

“They did a great job in the second half attacking us,” Roberts said. “Arkansas is a very good basketball team and we knew it was going to be a war from minute one.”

Despite giving up the big lead, which they held throughout most of the first half as well, the Jayhawks still maintained control for most of the rest of the game. Every time Arkansas pulled close, someone in white made a play.

With KJ Adams (14 points in 26 minutes) saddled with four fouls and Wilson fighting foul trouble, as well, senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (13 points in 37 minutes) did his part to carry the Jayhawks, hitting a couple of tough baskets and taking the challenge of trying to stop both Davonte Davis, who finished with 25 points and eight rebounds before fouling out, and Rick Council IV, who scored 21 points while playing all 40 minutes, with 10 of them coming in 11 trips to the free throw line.

“With them in foul trouble, I was just like I’m an older guy, I’ve been in games like that and I was just trying to rally the younger guys and keep us in it,” McCullar said.

It was the one miss at the line by Council that proved to be the way this one was decided. Rather than grabbing the rebound down by just one with 21 seconds to play, Kansas botched the box out attempt and watched Council get the ball back. He was fouled on a drive to the rim and then hit two free throws to put the Razorbacks up three.

“One possession can change the game and that’s kind of what it was today,” McCullar said, with his eyes red and puffy from the tears that flowed as he walked off the floor. “We had some minor mistakes down the stretch, boxing out, missing free throws, things like that, and that’ll get you in a game like this.”

KU had a couple of cracks to cut into the lead or look to tie it, but they never could quite get there. With 16 seconds to play, Wilson (20 points in 37 minutes) drove to the rim for two rather than pulling up for a 3-pointer. It led to two free throws and pulled the Jayhawks within one, but also took eight seconds.

Council made two free throws immediately after that and the Jayhawks tried to run a play similar to the one Villanova used to beat North Carolina in the 2017 national title game. Rather than finding the kind of room Kris Jenkins did then, and hoisting up a potential game-tying triple, Wilson was fouled and went to the line knowing he had to make one and miss the second for the Jayhawks to have a prayer.

“I haven’t really practiced banked free throws,” Wilson said in the locker room after the loss. “That’s a tough position to be in, which way to miss it. But that’s on me, man. I didn’t even give us an opportunity to have a shot. But there’s not one play that won or lost this game. It was just play after play the entire second half.”

As the final horn sounded on Saturday’s game and KU’s season, the emotional toll was easy to spot on the faces of the Jayhawks.

Some looked heartbroken. Others angry. And others had blank stares on their faces.

Adams was one of those who looked stunned.

“Kind of surreal,” he said in the locker room afterwards. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, who had dreams of making another run to a national title and had started to convince people all across the country that such a thing was possible, they came crashing down in the end, failing to get out of the first weekend for the third time in the past four NCAA Tournaments.

There was an NCAA title sprinkled in there. And the Jayhawks had the very real reason of having to play this one without their head coach, who missed Saturday’s game — his fifth in a row — while still recovering from the stent procedure he recently underwent.

But none of that made Saturday’s loss and the finality of their impressive season any easier to stomach following Saturday’s gut-wrenching one-point loss.

“You can kind of tell if you look around, everyone’s down,” Dick said. “We put our heart and soul into this season and for it to end like this, abruptly, was obviously not what we wanted.”

With the outcome in the bag and their season over, Dick sat with his parents and brothers in a second-row seat in the deep corner of the arena, watching the Penn State-Texas game unfold in front of him.

His mom, Carmen, had her right arm around her son and Dick’s brothers and dad, Bart, sat nearby. In the front row, Adams and his father, Kevin Sr., sat still, staring forward.

After about 10 minutes, someone from KU’s travel party came to get the two Jayhawks, the first and hardest sign that it really was over.

Dick hugged his mom and said his goodbyes and then walked through the tunnel with his head down. Adams hugged his father and then hugged Dick’s father before stopping to sign a couple of autographs for young fans on his way out.

That, as much as their fight-to-the-finish mentality, was who this team truly was. Tough and together, in good times and bad.

“We persevered through a lot, no matter what was going on; we stayed true to who we are and true to our family, our culture that we’ve built through the many years that I’ve seen,” Wilson said. “This is one of the tightest groups I’ve ever been around. No matter what the outcome is, you know, I love these guys, I loved this year and I will remember this forever.”


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