Runner-up Kansas digs hole too deep against vaunted Kentucky
Kansas rallied from an 18-point deficit but lost 67-59 in their Kentucky rematch
Tyshawn Taylor got the rally going with a 3-pointer followed by a three-point play
Kentucky coaxed the final few minutes and ultimately finished off their title
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Kansas managed to come back time and again this season, seemingly no deficit too big and no odds too long for a team full of overachievers.
The Jayhawks finally dug a hole too deep Monday night, and ran into a team from Kentucky with enough firepower to prevent them from digging all the way out.
After whittling an 18-point lead to five in the closing minutes, Kansas finally succumbed in the national championship game. The Wildcats made enough free throws down the stretch to preserve a 67-59 victory, bringing the scrappy Jayhawks' dream season to a disappointing close.
"They had us on our heels, and really controlled everything the first 20 minutes,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We got the game we wanted it. It was a muddy track and we had opportunities to make some plays to cut it to a one-possession game late.
"We came up short,'' Self said, "but I don't think we lost. I think they just beat us.''
Kansas had made a habit of waiting until things were dire to kick it into gear. It happened against Purdue and North Carolina State earlier in the tournament, and against Ohio State in the national semifinals, when the Jayhawks came back from 13 down to reach the title game.
"We've been fighting all year. We're hard-working guys. Just tough and want to fight,'' Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "The fight never stops with us.''
It didn't stop until the bitter end Monday night.
Kansas hung tough through the opening minutes, getting the kind of grind-it-out game that it wanted. But the Wildcats eventually turn it into a track meet, and a brutally efficient run midway through the first half turned a 23-17 lead into a 39-21 advantage.
It was all uphill for the Jayhawks from there.
Thomas Robinson had 18 points and 17 rebounds for Kansas, the All-American doing his best to spark a rally. But the junior forward's points came largely on volume - he was 6 of 17 from the field, harassed and harangued all game by Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.
"A lot of times, I tried to go to my left shoulder, but I would see Anthony over top,'' Robinson said. "He definitely impacted the game with the way he stretched the defense.''
Kansas finally got a spark from Taylor, the senior guard whose streaky shooting has been a sore spot for Kansas throughout his checkered career.
He knocked down a 3-pointer to get things going, and added a three-point play moments later, before two free throws by Robinson trimmed the Kentucky lead to 59-52.
"They'd been in that situation before,'' Davis said. "They just kept fighting.''
Elijah Johnson hit a 3-pointer a moment later, and Robinson made two more foul shots, and Kentucky coach John Calipari began to look nervous for the first time all night.
"You have to give Kansas credit,'' he said. "They didn't stop.''
Self never stopped, either, marching up and down in front of Kansas' bench. He exhorted his team to play defense and convert on offense. At one point, he reminded his team that there are no "13-point plays,'' the same message he drilled home two nights earlier against Ohio State.
The veteran Jayhawks kept chipping away until Taylor missed a shot with about a minute left.
Robinson squandered an opportunity to make it a one-possession game when he lost a loose ball along the baseline, and perhaps his team's best chance slipped away with it.
"No one told us we were going to lose except the scoreboard. That was our mindset,'' Johnson said, sniffling in the locker room afterward. "We said, `Hey, if they're going to beat us, they're going to remember us. They're going to feel the last of us.' And that's what we did.''
Kentucky managed to coax the final few minutes off the clock, making the free throws that Calipari's Memphis team missed against Kansas in the 2008 title game.
As fireworks blasted and streamers rained from the rafters, Kansas slowly trudged off the elevated floor inside the Superdome. A team that once rallied from 19 points down to beat Missouri and that had survived so many nip-and-tuck battles in the NCAA tournament was left to wonder how things had gone so sour so early when it mattered most.
And what might have been had they kept it close the entire way.
"We just came up empty,'' Self said, "but there's no team I've been around that's been able to take whatever situation is dealt it and responded favorably, and there's no team I've been around that's represented a university and themselves and their families as well as this one.''
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