Rock Chalk, Champions
After a fantastic two-minute flurry at the end of regulation, Kansas KO'd Memphis 75-68 in overtime to claim the Jayhawks' first title since Danny and the Miracles prevailed 20 years ago
Posted: Tuesday April 8, 2008 8:58AM; Updated: Thursday April 10, 2008 11:49AM
The ball floated through the air, its pebbled surface spinning softly, as serene and peaceful as a space capsule in a low-earth orbit. At 10:29 p.m. CDT on Monday at the Alamodome in San Antonio, the fate of a college basketball season rested on Kansas guard Mario Chalmers -- or, to be more precise, on his last-ditch three-pointer, a make-or-break heave with 2.1 seconds left that would either send the NCAA title game into overtime or give Memphis, clinging to a 63-60 lead, its first championship in school history.
In his mind's eye Chalmers had been here before. As a four-year-old in Anchorage he and his father, Ronnie, would set up a makeshift basketball arena in their family room, complete with two Nerf basketball goals, couches for team benches and even space for Mario's mother, Almarie, to perform The Star-Spangled Banner. Mario would often skip to the finish and (three, two, one!) launch a bomb with the championship on the line. In those days, as on Monday night, Super Mario was money. "As soon as it left my hand it felt good, and I knew it was going in," Chalmers said after his miraculous trey from the top of the key had completed KU's rise from a nine-point abyss with 2:12 left in regulation. "I just waited for it to hit the net."
The Jayhawks' 75-68 overtime victory was a rare fantastic finish in college basketball's crown jewel, the most riveting final since Connecticut upset Duke 77-74 in 1999, and it showcased the remarkable balance of Kansas, the only Final Four team not to have an All-America. If the hero wasn't Chalmers, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, it was forward Darrell Arthur, who overpowered Tigers forward Joey Dorsey with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Or swingman Brandon Rush, whose two overtime buckets crushed Memphis's hopes. Or maybe the entire Kansas defense, which slowed the Tigers' dribble-drive motion attack and held them to just 40.3% shooting.
But Memphis had a hand in its own demise. All season long the Tigers had claimed that their woeful 60.7% free throw shooting wouldn't be their undoing when the games counted most, and sure enough, the Tigers had made 50 of their last 59 foul shots entering Monday's final. But against Kansas their confidence finally failed them at the worst possible moment. Guards Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose, Memphis's two best players, sank only 1 of 5 from the line in the final 1:15 of regulation, opening the door for the Jayhawks' comeback. "I let them down by missing those free throws," said Douglas-Roberts, who apologized to the team in the locker room and blamed himself for the loss.
Rose hadn't acted like a freshman all night, scoring 18 points and leading a second-half charge, but with that 63-60 lead he cracked, failing to heed coach John Calipari's instructions to foul Kansas point guard Sherron Collins before he could dish to Chalmers for the equalizing three-pointer. Afterward Rose was inconsolable, crying outside the locker room as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the team's unofficial spiritual adviser, held him up. "Don't look like a freshman crying. It looks pitiful," Jackson whispered into Rose's left ear. "Smile through your tears and speak above your pain."
On the other side the emotion was just as raw, courtesy of Chalmers's last-second lifeline. "It will probably be," said Jayhawks coach Bill Self, "the biggest shot ever made in Kansas history."