NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Kansas guard Elijah Johnson emerged from a huddle late in the game with a smile on his face.
The Jayhawks had been here before, down and nearly out, and time and again they’d managed to rally to victory. There was no reason to believe this would be any different.
“No one told us we were going to lose except the scoreboard. That was our mind-set,” Johnson said, reflecting on the closing minutes Monday night. “We said, `Hey, if they’re going to beat us, they’re going to remember us. They going to feel the last of us,’ and that’s what we did.”
Right down to the bitter end.
Only this time, the hole was too deep. The opponent was too talented.
After whittling an 18-point lead to five, Kansas finally succumbed to mighty Kentucky in the national championship game. The Wildcats made enough free throws in crunch time to preserve a 67-59 victory, bringing the Jayhawks’ dream season to a disappointing close.
Kansas had made a habit of waiting until things were dire to kick it into gear. It had walked a tightrope all the way to the Final Four and had finally fallen off.
“We fought to the end,” Johnson said, sniffling in the locker room afterward. “A lot of teams would’ve gave up when they got down 14 at halftime. I felt that was our time to strike, and I felt like that’s what we did. We got the game close and never gave up.”
Just as the Jayhawks did against Missouri earlier this season, and Purdue and North Carolina State and Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. The only difference this time? The outcome.
“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,” he said, “but I don’t think we lost. I think they just beat us.”
Kansas hung tough through the opening minutes, getting the kind of grind-it-out game that it wanted. But the Wildcats eventually turned it into a track meet and a brutally efficient series 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.
“I still don’t think he’s Superman. Just a great player,” Robinson said of the tournament’s most outstanding player, who beat him out for national player of the year.