Curse of the Pond continues

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Pond strikes again. For the second time in six years the Wildcats took a senior laden team to Anaheim and for the second straight time the Wildcats came up just one game short of the Final Four. Kansas survived two Wildcat runs, but unlike their earlier meeting, this time Kansas held on.

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The Wildcats dug themselves an early hole, but still had two chances to win the game in the final seconds. Jason Gardner had his first shot blocked by Kirk Hinrich, but regained the ball and at the buzzer took a shot from the corner that hit the back iron.

"I had a good look, just missed off the back of the rim," Gardner said.

Arizona's chance to tie the game looked bleak. With under a minute to play Luke Walton was called for a charge and Kansas took possession. The Cats chose not to foul and instead forced Kansas into a shot clock violation. The Cats inbounded the ball with 7.1 seconds left and Gardner raced to the corner for his attempts.

The irony of the loss will be hard for Wildcat fans. It was in 1998 that the Wildcats came to Anaheim with a senior dominated team and a legitimate chance at a national title. That night the Wildcats were embarrassed by Utah, this time they lost to a Kansas team that had a legitimate claim at a one-seed.

The Cats dug themselves too big of a hole in the early going and it cost them in the end. Sloppy play and outstanding Kansas defense killed the Wildcats in the first half. Kansas played excellent man-to-man defense which they extended out well beyond the three-point arc. The Cats had 13 first half turnovers, 11 in the first 15:00 and found themselves down by as many as 16.

Déjà vu reared its head, and as they did back in January, the Wildcats erased the bulk of the Kansas lead. Arizona closed the half with a 15-2 run and appeared to be duplicating the magic they discovered in Lawrence.

To their credit the Jayhawks did not wilt. Roy Williams blew past CBS sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein like a man on a mission and whatever he did in the locker room worked. Kansas came out and outscored the Wildcats 15-5 to start the second half.

Kansas had to weather another Wildcat rally, this time the Cats scored 13 in a row and took the lead 58-56. From here on out it was back and forth. The final 10:32 saw four ties and five lead changes. A Keith Langford free throw with 4:31 gave Kansas a 70-69 lead they never relinquished.

The Cats shut down Nick Collison who torched Duke in the Sweet 16 with 33 points, but had no answer for Hinrich. The senior guard shot a miserable 1-9 on Thursday, but put in an amazing performance against Arizona. Hinrich scored 28 points and was a threat both on the perimeter and on the break. With Arizona in a 1-3-1 Hinrich made big shot after big shot.

"He stepped up big," Gardner said of Hinrich. "He showed that tonight. That is why he is one of the best players in the country. Every time they needed a bucket he was there."

When Aaron Miles was forced to the bench with foul troubles, eventually fouling out, it was Hinrich who ran the show. Hinrich kept the Jayhawks in their offense, dishing out five assists along the way.

Arizona's three seniors all put forth great final games. Despite missing the final shot, Gardner was good. He scored 23 points, dished four assists and had a pair of steals. Gardner was just 3-10 from three-point range, but was perfect from the charity stripe, making all eight attempts.

Luke Walton again proved to be the glue. When the Cats clawed back it was Walton who paved the way. He took advantage of smaller defenders and kept posting up, either getting the bucket or drawing the foul. He scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and six assists.

Unfortunately, his last memory may be of the charge call that occurred with 42 seconds left. Walton attacked the hoop again but was whistled for the player control foul that gave Kansas possession. Although replays show that the call could have gone either way, Walton never complained and accepted the result.

"I'm going to have to live with it," Walton said. "I probably should have shot the three."

Rick Anderson had a frustrating game. He played just 18 minutes, getting into early foul trouble. The lanky senior did score 11 points, making three of his five three-point attempts.

Two key Wildcats struggled. Like Anderson, Channing Frye battled foul difficulties. Frye had trouble with the bigger Jeff Graves and managed just five rebounds. He was 3-6 from the field, but rarely got open down low.

Salim Stoudamire was mostly a non-factor. Defensive lapses, poor shot choices and a hip pointer kept the sophomore sharp shooter on the bench, especially down the stretch. Stoudamire, who dominated the game in Lawrence, made just 1-of-4 shots, all three pointers. He failed to attack the hoop as he did in January and had two shots blocked.

The Wildcats got a glimpse of their future. Freshmen Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala had solid performances and proved that they could handle the pressure of big games. Adams played aggressive defense, anchoring to top of the 1-3-1. He was also an offensive spark, scoring 11-points. Iguodala was also a bear on defense, hawking whoever tried to get a look on the left side. He pulled down seven rebounds, many in traffic. The duo each had three steals as well.

Collison had a rough outing. The senior big man was limited to just eight points, rarely getting good looks as the center of attention in the zone.

"It was frustrating," Collison said. "The whole game was frustrating for me because I really couldn't get going."

Jeff Graves had no such trouble. Graves had a monster game. In addition to hitting all six shots, the big junior was a force on the offensive glass. Seven of his game-high 15 rebounds came on the offensive end.

"He was huge," Collison said of Graves. "That's about as well as he's played for us. For him to produce like that was big for him."

Fouls proved to be the early story as Arizona was forced to sit both Anderson and Frye before the first television timeout. Both of Arizona's starting big men were whistled with two fouls in the opening minutes. To make matters worse, Kansas' aggressive defense forced Arizona into numerous turnovers. The Cats started out in the 1-3-1 zone and seemed to be out of sorts early on with the defense they haven't used since the Oregon State game on March 6th. Although the scheme limited the Jayhawks to 1-4 three-point shooting, they were suspect inside allowing too many offensive rebounds and letting Kansas' post players to get good looks and jumped out to a 10-5 lead.

Things got worse for Arizona with Frye and Anderson out of the game. Kansas got hotter and the Wildcats could not hold onto the ball. Kansas' extended defense caused Arizona loads of problems and at the same time the Jayhawk perimeter players found their stroke. Hinrich buried a pair of three pointers while reserve Michael Lee added another as Kansas built up a 27-14 lead.

With Kansas stealing ball after ball, ten all told, they built up a 16-point lead before the Cats made their run. Arizona settled down, hung played smarter and scored the final 13 before the half.

Kansas showed true grit by not falling apart. Their fans, band and media contingent looked worried, but they never lost confidence. Unlike in January, the Jayhawks came out strong. Four offensive rebounds and a couple of missed Wildcat rebounds sparked Kansas. The Cats had a chance to tie the game on a fast break, but Frye mishandled a pass that would have led to a sure basket and Kansas responded with 11 straight and found themselves back up 53-42.

Arizona used another run to not only cut into the lead, but to actually take their first lead since the first minute. The Cats hit three straight threes, four all told, and went on a 16-0 run. Gardner sandwiched a Walton three around two of his own and Adams scored five in a row to tie the game. After his three knotted things up, Gardner added two more foul shots and Arizona took a 62-60 lead.

The rest of the way things were back and forth. No team scored more than two straight baskets over the final 8:46.

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