Jayhawks remain proud of season

Originally Published: April 2, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- On the court and on the bench, they looked defeated and deflated.

The Kansas Jayhawks had spent the better part of two hours getting completely manhandled by Kentucky in the NCAA title game. For the most part, these had looked like two different calibers of teams. KU wasn't going to yell "Uncle!" -- but it may have been open to a running clock.

Statisticians on media row even cracked open the record book to look up the most lopsided loss in championship game history.

Just in case.

But then something strange happened. Trailing by 12 points with less than seven minutes remaining -- the deficit had been as large as 18 -- the Jayhawks rose from their chairs after a timeout, walked onto the Superdome court.

And smiled.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Bill Self
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREIt took more than 30 minutes, but Kansas got fired up to make a game of it late.

"No one could tell us that we were going to lose except for the scoreboard," guard Elijah Johnson said. "We said, 'If they're going to beat us, they're going to remember us. They're going to feel the last of us.'"

Kentucky certainly did.

KU coach Bill Self may have come up short in his quest for a second NCAA title, but he and his players will leave New Orleans on Tuesday afternoon brimming with pride. Instead of folding against a Wildcats squad stacked with future pros, the Jayhawks clawed back and threw a scare into Kentucky before eventually succumbing 67-59.

"We didn't lay down," point guard Tyshawn Taylor said, "and we easily could've. If anything, we can feel good about that."

Kansas pulled within five points of the Wildcats late in the second half and had a handful of opportunities in the final two minutes to make it a one-possession game, but Kentucky came up with some huge defensive plays to hold on for the victory.

"We always say somebody -- sometimes even me -- could've given 5 percent more or even 10 percent more," Self said. "But with this group, I don't know if they had any more to give.

"They gave us just about everything they had."

That was the theme of the entire weekend when it came to Kansas.

No one could believe that the Jayhawks -- who lost four starters and two key reserves from last season's Elite Eight squad -- had somehow made the Final Four. Last week a KU team that features zero McDonald's All-Americans beat a North Carolina team with six of them in the Midwest Regional final.

Hardly anyone picked Kansas to get by an Ohio State team that was at full strength in Saturday's semifinal. And in the 48 hours before they took the court Monday, all the Jayhawks heard was that Kentucky was an overwhelming favorite, that they didn't have a chance.

It was a foregone conclusion that Kentucky would win. The only question was by how much?

"Let's be realistic," Johnson said. "They have six players that can score 30 points on any given night. We're used to scouting reports where only one guy can score 30."

Led by Wooden Award winning Anthony Davis, as many as six players from Kentucky's roster could be first-round picks in this summer's NBA draft. Even though the game appeared to be a mismatch on paper, Wildcats coach John Calipari did his best to hype up Kansas and its tradition-rich program to his players.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Tyshawn Taylor
Bob Donnan/US PRESSWIREKansas' Tyshawn Taylor had what appeared to be a layup before Michael Kidd-Gilchrist recovered for a crucial block.

"This is Goliath vs. Goliath," Calipari told them during his pregame speech.

Early on that hardly appeared to be the case.

Kansas trailed by as many as 18 points in the first half, when Kentucky continued to get baskets in transition.

"They've got four players that can bring the ball up the court," Johnson said. "For someone to get the rebound and just put it on the floor and go, that puts you on your heels. We haven't seen that very much this year."

Kansas trailed 41-27 at intermission -- its largest halftime deficit of the season -- and judging by the feel of the opening half, few could've guessed that KU could make a game of it over the final 20 minutes. Fighting back from double-digit deficits against Purdue, North Carolina State and Ohio State is one thing. Doing it against one of the best teams in recent college basketball memory is a different beast.

"It's annoying being down," said forward Thomas Robinson, who had 18 points and 17 boards. "It's draining. You can't do it against every team. We were fortunate to get this far playing how we played. But I'm proud of my team."

Robinson should be.

Even though KU fell a few points short, the Jayhawks -- even if only for a few moments -- rattled the Wildcats and Calipari, who won the first NCAA title of his career Monday.

With about four minutes remaining, Johnson glanced at Calipari as he sat on a stool near the Kentucky bench. Arms crossed, Calipari appeared at ease and content.

"He looked nice and comfortable," Johnson said. "I kind of smiled at him and he smiled back at me, because I knew that was our time to make him as uncomfortable as he had been the whole game.

"I wanted to see how uncomfortable we could make him."

Four seasons earlier, in 2008, Kansas defeated Calipari's Memphis squad in the NCAA title game by erasing a nine-point deficit in the final 2:12 before winning in overtime. On Monday, the Jayhawks nearly repeated the feat.

A pair of free throws by Robinson shaved Kentucky's lead to 62-57 with 1:37 remaining. A foul shot by Davis pushed the bulge to 63-57, but KU still had a chance when Taylor drove baseline and appeared to have an easy reverse layup that would've made it a four-point game.

Instead, Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made the play of the game and blocked Taylor's shot. Kentucky's Marquis Teague came up with the ball and was fouled. He made both free throws to make it 65-57 with 57 seconds left.

"He made an unbelievable play," Taylor said. "I thought I had it. I should have finished it on the same side, but I felt like I was too far under the rim. He didn't quit on the play. I definitely thought I had a layup."

Kansas' last chance came with 23 ticks remaining. Trailing 65-59, Johnson went up for a 3-pointer from the left corner, but once he saw Davis flying toward him for a block, Johnson dropped the ball and then picked it up again after he landed. He was whistled for traveling. Kentucky got the ball back and wrapped up the game.

"The [official] had to make a decision," Johnson said. "If he believed I traveled, it's his ball game. To be in that situation, I felt like I reacted to it perfectly.

"To come up short really put a dagger in the momentum we were trying to build. I felt like we were actually building some momentum. Every time we did, something small would get in the way and set us back."

Once the final horn sounded and streamers began falling from the rafters, most of Kansas' players were quick to congratulate the Wildcats -- an obvious sign of respect between the two programs.

Kansas shot just 37 percent in the paint and had 11 of its 43 field-goal attempts blocked -- an NCAA title game record.

"No one in the country matches their talent," Robinson said.

[+] EnlargeKansas Jayhawks
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesKansas fell to Kentucky but the Jayhawks shouldn't feel any shame in losing.

Kansas certainly isn't hurting for quality players, either.

Taylor finished with a team-high 19 points in his final game as a collegian while center Jeff Withey had four blocks. He blocked 31 shots during this season's NCAA tournament, which is also a record.

"We were right in it," Withey said. "We were five points away. I wish we could play them one more time."

Withey and Johnson, both juniors, vowed after the game to bypass the NBA draft and return next season along with small forward Travis Releford. Taylor is a senior. Robinson, a junior, was noncommittal about his future plans Monday, but even Self said "it's over" when asked about Robinson's career at KU. Robinson is projected as top-five pick.

"I'd be stupid to think in my head, 'Thomas will be back next year,'" Johnson said. "I've faced reality. That's my roommate. I've been feeling like he's about to leave, like it's about to end. It's all over, man. It's over."

So, too, is one of the best seasons in Kansas basketball history. The Jayhawks won an eighth straight Big 12 title, posted a 32-7 record and reached the biggest stage college basketball has to offer. Not bad for a team whose coach seriously wondered if the Jayhawks would even make the NCAA tournament after a loss to Davidson back in December.

"From Day 1, we heard about how we weren't going to do this or we weren't going to do that," Johnson said. "Ever since the [Morris] twins decided they were going to the draft and we lost all our seniors -- for us to get this far with the worst-talented team that I've been a part of at Kansas, I'm proud of this team. I love this team. I'll remember this team forever."

Johnson paused.

"The whole ride felt so good," he said. "I just wish the ending was a little different."