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Sunday, March 30, 2008
Feel-good story of the year ends with KU, Self headed to the Final Four

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

DETROIT -- In Hollywood, of course, the shot goes in.

Jason Richards' 25-footer at the buzzer drops. Davidson goes to the Final Four. Stephen Curry is an American Idol. Bob McKillop becomes a compelling vice presidential candidate. The nation sings "Sweet Caroline" for another week.

In Detroit, the shot collides with the hard reality of the backboard, not the feathery fairy-tale softness of the net.

Richards' shot is wide left, off by a foot. Kansas escapes to the Final Four, 59-57. Curry's inspiring run is over, at least until next season. McKillop is left to explain a final play that went awry, and he is left off presidential tickets. "Sweet Caroline" goes back into sporadic rotation on oldies stations.

Davidson is done. Romance is dead in this NCAA tournament. Cinderella has left the building, replaced by four behemoths.

But as America sagged over the demise of its endearing underdog, a freshly unburdened Bill Self heaved himself up from his knees on the sideline. The Kansas coach looked briefly into the stands and blew a gust of air through his cheeks.

As one Kansas staffer said, "It looked like 400 pounds of pressure had just left his body."

Self had been asked a day earlier what the emotion would be upon winning and reaching his first Final Four. He said probably joy, then acknowledged that there would be some relief, as well.

Given the way this went down, relief won in a landslide.

"I would say instead of jubilation, it was probably more relief," Self said. "You picture winning a big game like that, you make a shot, you celebrate, or something happens and you're able to go congratulate all your coaches and your players. This was not one of those deals.

Playing Davidson, even though they're good, they don't have the same 'Wow' factor with the name of their school, not being from a BCS conference. I think, in some ways, that maybe put a little subtle pressure on you, as well.

--Bill Self

"I just wanted to make sure that I hurried up and shook hands and the officials left the court so they couldn't put any more time back on the clock."

On the raised court at Ford Field, Self watched the final play in an almost prayerful position. With his history of heartbreak at this point in the NCAA tournament, having lost his other four regional final appearances, that's apt. With the magic 10th-seeded Davidson had bottled this tournament, with his solidly favored Jayhawks leading by two measly points, with the ball in the hands of the hottest player on the planet … hey, who wouldn't ask for a divine bailout?

"There definitely was some hoping and praying going on," Self said.

In the end, Kansas didn't need the Almighty as much as it needed the defensive vigilance of Sherron Collins and Brandon Rush.

Given the final possession with 16.8 seconds left, Davidson put the ball directly in Curry's mitts. Standard operating procedure for the Wildcats is to let Richards do the ballhandling while Curry snakes around screens for a shot. But Davidson didn't want to risk its superstar getting mobbed and never touching the ball with the season on the line, so Curry brought it upcourt.

Self countered by going with a four-guard lineup, telling his players to switch everything and eliminate the chance for a 3-pointer. It was a prescient move.

Kansas celebrates
Kansas celebrated a 59-57 win and its first trip to the Final Four since 2003.

When Curry methodically brought the ball into the frontcourt and worked his way from left to right off a screen at the top of the key, Rush switched onto him and dogged him toward the sideline. Curry pulled up and Rush slipped to the floor, and for an instant, Davidson's dream scenario materialized: Steph Curry, incomparable shooter, had no one in his face.

But Curry was slightly off-balance after shaking Rush, and before he could square up, Collins was rushing at him. Then Rush was off the deck and in the air, as well. Curry's only option was a pass back to the center of the court to Richards.

Richards' final shot in a Davidson uniform was rushed. The clock expired while it was in the air, backboard rimmed in orange light as the ball closed in on the basket. Believers in miracles thought it had a chance. A terribly nervous man on his knees thought so, too.

"It looked like it had a real good chance to go in," Self said. "Of course, it was wide left. Then the horn blew. I was like, 'Why is the horn going off? I can't believe that 16 seconds has already passed.'"

So it wasn't the longest 16 seconds of Self's life. Which is a bit of a surprise because a loss here had the potential to haunt Self forever.

"[The game] just has a different feel because everybody knows the stakes are so high," Self said. "Playing Davidson, even though they're good, they don't have the same 'Wow' factor with the name of their school, not being from a BCS conference. I think, in some ways, that maybe put a little subtle pressure on you, as well."

He's right, of course. But Davidson definitely acquired the "wow" factor with its incredible tournament run.

That shot's going to replay in my head the rest of my life.

--Jason Richards

Unless you're a fan of Gonzaga, Georgetown, Wisconsin or Kansas, you fell stone-cold in love with Davidson this March. Real scholar-athletes representing a tiny school from a low-profile league. A self-effacing star whose shooting was nothing short of thrilling. A coach who personifies class. Trustees willing to dig into their own pockets to pay for students to come from North Carolina to Detroit to witness this (more busloads arrived Sunday afternoon, joining the hundreds who arrived Friday).

This was the feel-good story of the year in college basketball. Maybe of the decade -- no disrespect to George Mason. Maybe several decades.

"I'm definitely proud of our team," Curry said. "I mean, we made history for our school."

The appreciation of making history will come in time, but first came the hurt. In the Davidson locker room, the devastation was palpable.

"That shot's going to replay in my head the rest of my life," Richards said.

Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry, the Midwest Regional's Most Outstanding Player, came up just a bit short of continuing the thrilling run through the NCAA tournament.

There are more realistic regrets to harbor. Such as the 5-of-12 foul shooting from a team that shot 72 percent from the line this season. And the 10 Kansas offensive rebounds. And the four-point lead, plus possession, with 7:35 left that dissolved quickly. And the second-half stretch when an exhausted Curry made just 1 of 10 shots, including seven missed 3s.

"Fatigue is a factor," said Curry, who faced four different defenders and a box-and-one defense during the game. "But we fought through to the best of our abilities and still had a shot to win it at the end."

With Davidson down six with a minute left, Curry appeared spent and the game appeared over. But then senior center Thomas Sander was fouled at the rim. Playing with a right thumb broken in the first round against Gonzaga, Sander gritted one free throw into the basket. He missed the second, but the ball went out of bounds off Kansas.

On the inbounds play, Curry finally got a 3 to drop, his first since early in the second half. Then the Wildcats hunkered down defensively and got a stop, got possession, got a final chance to shock the world.

After that final shot went wide and the Jayhawks celebrated and the Wildcats shook their hands, the Cats walked slowly up the ramp to their locker room. Curry clasped both hands on top of his head as he walked.

He'd scored 25 points in this game and 128 in the tournament, becoming the first regional Most Outstanding Player from a losing team in 14 years. His skills brought LeBron James to his feet -- and the rest of the country to its feet, as well. His baby face made him the anti-Oden, a player who looks so much younger than he acts and plays.

After a tourney like that, every player worth his entourage would be throwing his name into the NBA draft without even slowing down to think it over. Not Curry.

"I'm definitely coming back," he said. "I don't think I'm ready."

For once, college basketball wins.

"I can still appreciate what we've done, even though it hurts," Curry said. "Until we start playing next year, I'll be thinking about how close we were. But I'm so excited about our team next year. I feel like I could go out and play another game right now."

We wish you were, Stephen. See you next season.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.