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 April 7 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 3.9 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 arena in their family room, complete with two Nerf basketball goals, couches as 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 title on the line. In those days, as on that April 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 the 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.
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."
IN PRESENTING KANSAS with its third NCAA basketball championship, the 45-year-old Self laid to rest any remaining doubts that he couldn't win the Big One. But it was the Jayhawks' stomach-churning 59-57 defeat of 10th-seeded Davidson to reach San Antonio—Self's first Elite Eight victory in five tries at three schools—that liberated not just the coach but also his entire team from paralyzing Self-doubt. "I believe in some weird way that the Elite Eight game was the best thing that could have happened for us," Self said during a quiet pre-Final Four moment in his hotel aerie overlooking the Alamodome. "We had to play out of our comfort zone, and we didn't play great, but we found a way to win. It was a relief for our guys. Now they could just go have fun and play."
By the time Davidson guard Jason Richards's last-second shot that would have won the game caromed off the backboard, Self had fallen to his knees, bowled over by the weight of the moment. Survival, not celebration, was the prevailing sensation. But Self was a new man once he returned home that night with his wife, Cindy, and their children, Lauren, 17, and Tyler, 14. At 2 a.m. the family gathered on the sofa of the sprawling basement game room and watched the replay of the victory with a new outlook. "Our house had been full for weeks, and now it was just us," Cindy said later. "Everybody was so excited, but Bill was the only one awake at the end. The rest of us were zonked out. I think it was 3:30 when he finally said, 'O.K., everybody, go to bed.' "
As Kansas prepared for the Final Four, memories of their long journey to get there came flooding back for Bill and Cindy, sweethearts since their days as Oklahoma State students. At a tip-off event in San Antonio on the Thursday night before the final, Bill sat onstage with the other three head coaches and recalled how in 1984 he had injured his knee before his senior season while working at the Kansas basketball camp run by then Jayhawks coach Larry Brown. "Coach Brown felt terrible," said Self, who was a four-year letterman at guard for OSU, "and the worse he felt, the more I limped." When Brown asked Self what he could do to repay him, Self's reply was direct: Hire me as your graduate assistant next year. And Brown did, tapping Self to replace a departing GA named John Calipari.
The most troublesome memory for Self was one from the end of his second season at Kansas, in 2005, after the Jayhawks had been upset in the first round of the NCAAs by Bucknell. A few weeks later he sat in a private room at a St. Louis restaurant watching Illinois, the previous team he had coached, lose in the national title game to North Carolina, which was coached by his predecessor at Kansas, Roy Williams. "I was happy that Illinois was there, but I was also, to be quite candid, jealous," Self says. "Because those were the guys my staff had put together. Then you had the Kansas contingent that was jealous because Roy was playing and we were not. It was the most frustrating time for me as a coach that didn't have anything to do with winning or losing."
There would be another first-round defeat, to Bradley, the next year, followed by a loss in the Elite Eight last season, this time as a No. 1 seed to UCLA. Says Cindy, "It was like, Ugh, are we going to get over this hump?"