Suspense eviscerated (cont.)
Posted: Sunday April 6, 2008 1:56AM; Updated: Sunday April 6, 2008 1:56AM
That notion would be confirmed soon enough, as the Jayhawks engineered a mind-boggling 27-2 run culminating with the aforementioned Aldrich -- a 2.9-points-per-game scorer pressed into duty due to Kaun's early foul trouble -- hitting a turnaround jumper, then administering a monster block of UNC point guard Ty Lawson on the other end.
At that point, with 6:48 remaining in the half, the game had taken on the feel of a first-round 1 vs. 16 game, with Kansas leading by the unthinkable margin of 40-12. You had to pinch yourself to remember that this was in fact a Final Four game and that the team on the wrong end of the score was not a 16 seed, but in fact the tourney's No. 1 overall seed.
"There were eight guys that played at a very, very high level for the first 15 minutes of the game," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who, it turns out, can in fact win the big game. "I mean, that was a pleasure for me to watch."
Things weren't quite as enjoyable on the other bench, as a shell-shocked group of Tar Heels players tried in vein to regroup on several occasions.
"It would take four or five seconds [in the huddle] for someone to say something," said Ginyard. "Everyone was looking at each other like, 'What the hell?'"
There's no telling what the halftime margin might have reached had the Jayhawks not turned cocky in the final five minutes, personified by Aldrich's bizarre attempt to throw down a tomahawk dunk that didn't just miss, but missed badly. "He tried to get cute with it," said Self. A series of similar miscues helped the Tar Heels cut the deficit to 17 by halftime.
Crazy dunks aside, Aldrich finished the half with six points, six rebounds and three blocks -- all well above his season averages. The Jayhawks shot 54.5 percent while holding North Carolina to 29 percent. They'd notched seven steals. They'd outrebounded one of the nation's top rebounding teams 23-15.
Things were going so perfectly that Self couldn't even bring himself to be upset with the slew of ill-advised shots his team took toward the end of the half.
"Those guys were so geeked up, they were playing so hard, having so much fun, you almost didn't want to corral that," he said.
Self would have to intervene soon enough, however. The Tar Heels mounted a gargantuan comeback, clipping a one-time 28-point deficit all the way down to four, 54-50, with 11:15 left. Hansbrough began to assert himself, Wayne Ellington (18 points) started draining some shots (though he finished 1-for-9 from three-point range) and making several big defensive plays and Danny Green (15 points), UNC's one consistent player all night, hit a couple long jumpers.
Despite what both the halftime and final scores indicated, there was in fact a brief span of suspense -- which the Jayhawks promptly eviscerated. The comeback attempt "took so much energy out of us," said Green, that a 13-0 Kansas run beginning with 5:11 left put the final fork in the Heels.
Sherron Collins drained a three from the top of the key. Game-high scorer Brandon Rush (25 points) sliced through the lane only to find there were no defenders there. And in the game's defining, back-breaking moment -- a play that seemed to occur as if in slow-motion -- Rush dribbled to the wing, spotted Jackson sneaking toward the basket and lobbed it to him for a slam to go back up 71-61.
"They came back with a run there late," said a visibly devastated Hansbrough. "We kind of went into panic mode after that ... They kept coming down, scoring. That was it."
To those who have watched the Jayhawks all season, the extent of their dominance was not altogether atypical, albeit against a far more formidable opponent. Those who watched their most recent performance, however -- that 59-57 squeaker against Davidson -- had to be downright stunned.
In interviews after Saturday's game, both Self and his players admitted what most of us had already speculated: That the Jayhawks played that Davidson game like a team saddled with the dual pressure of trying to both get over its Elite Eight hex and not suffer the indignity of losing to a heavy underdog.
"No matter how much I said there was no pressure [last week], the players felt it," said Self. "I knew if we got here [to the Final Four], the pressure would subside and our guys would go play."
"Coach told us to take the shackles off," said Arthur. "We have unbelievable depth. When guys like Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich are coming in and producing like stars, we can go a long way in this tournament."
At this point, they've gone as far as all but one other team, Memphis (38-1), against whom Kansas will square off Monday night for a chance at its first national title in 20 years.
This may seem hard to believe now, but there was once a time when the Jayhawks were considered the least-likely Final Four participant to emerge as the champion. Actually, it was only about 24 hours ago.
"Our ultimate goal at the beginning of the season was to be playing for a national title," said Aldrich. "I don't have any words to describe it."
No worries, Cole. That flashing "40-12" on the scoreboard took care of it for you.
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