Memorable March

It may not have ended quite how they wanted it to, but for the Kansas Jayhawks the 2011-2012 season was still an unmitigated success by any standard. Phog.net's Kristi Setaro chimes in with some final thoughts on what was a wild ride for coaches, fans and players.

All that was left of a magical March run was a Kansas locker room full of teary-eyed players.

It didn't seem right that after such an emotional NCAA Tournament run that it should end like this. But the 67-59 loss to the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats hurt. It stings when you invest in something and pursue your dreams with all your heart, get so close, and come up short.

On the sport's crowning night Bill Self and his team believed. They knew this wasn't a seven-game series. It was one 40-minute contest and they could beat John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats.

Like they have so many times, the Hawks fought and fought hard. They came back from 18 down to an ultra-talented Kentucky team and nearly closed within one possession on multiple occasions down the stretch.

"I think, you know, the fight never stops with us guys, man," said a dejected Tyshawn Taylor. "From Thomas (Robinson) to Kevin Young coming off the bench. We were fighting the whole game. We were right there. We were right there."

They were RIGHT there and it felt like KU's impressive second half might end with another thrilling comeback but eventually the biggest plays came from Kentucky.

On a backdoor play from Elijah Johnson to Taylor that KU executed to perfection many times this season - including in the overtime against Missouri - Taylor was ready to finish and knock the lead down to 4 but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist denied Ty's reverse layup attempt.

"He made an unbelievable play," said Taylor in retrospect. "I thought I had it. I should have finished it on the same side. But I felt like I was too far under the rim. He didn't quit on the play. His length, you know, is something that you can't really teach. So him not giving up, then him using his length, he made an unbelievable play. I definitely thought I had a layup."

Then from nearly the same corner where Kansas was denied a national championship in 2003 by Syracuse's Hakim Warrick, Elijah Johnson was bothered by Anthony Davis' length and traveled prior to his three-point shot attempt.

"Davis made an unbelievable play on Elijah to force the walk and KiddGilchrist made an unbelievable play on Ty when we had the layup," said Self.

"We put ourselves in a position to make it a onepossession game late and just didn't get it done," Self said. "But it wasn't for a lack of try or lack of competitive juice or lack of toughness. I mean, our guys the last 10 minutes played and we just came up empty."

So Self, and his super tandem, Thomas and Tyshawn, were left at the podium to sum up the length of Kentucky, an extraordinary season, and just how crushing this defeat was.

"Coach said something to us earlier. When you care so much about something, it doesn't go your way, it's going to hurt a little bit," said a solemn Taylor. "That's kind of the stage we're going through right now. I think I speak for probably all my teammates and probably the coaches that this is going to hurt for a while."

"It's an accomplishment. It's definitely a plus," Robinson said about playing in the national championship game. "Anything we did to get this far in the tournament, especially with the expectations we had coming into the season. Like coach said, I don't think we lost the game, we just got beat. I'm just glad I got a chance to be a part of this team."?

That was a sentiment echoed by every member of this team.

It was a group that together competed with incredible tenacity to the very end. Their togetherness epitomized at the very end when teammates tried to console a doubled-over Thomas Robinson who had tears streaming down his cheeks.

"Seeing T-Rob like that, t killed me," said Johnson.

"When we look back on this, we gonna feel okay about it because we fought our hearts out and we've been fighting our hearts out from the beginning of the season and that's why this hurts a little bit more," concluded Taylor.

"I love my team. We fight. We fought to the end and we never gave up. A lot of teams would've given up down 12 or 14 at halftime," said a red-eyed Johnson.

"I knew I could count on these guys to fight no matter how much time is on the clock and no matter how much we're down by," said junior Travis Releford. "Even when we were down 18 with however much time was left we knew we were going to make a run."

Eventually the tears will dry and players will stop hitting that rewind button in their minds thinking about what could've been if a couple of possessions had gone differently.

Taylor and Robinson especially will look back fondly on this season in the crimson and blue. They were unquestionably the leaders of this team embracing playing a larger role from day one. Robinson matured into one of the nation's toughest and most dominant players and will likely leave to be a top 5 NBA Draft pick in June. Taylor was nothing short of remarkable becoming a consistent contributor and putting up lofty numbers down the stretch.

"He's performed since conference play started more consistently and better than any guard that we've had since I've been at Kansas. He's been absolutely terrific," said Self of his senior guard.

"I wouldn't want to play four years with any other guard," said Johnson.

"He can make plays you can't coach. Some of the plays he made tonight driving, offbalance, are plays you can't coach. He's performed at a level that I thought he possibly could, but he's maybe even surpassed what I thought. He's been that good."

But it wasn't just the numbers Taylor was putting up. He repelled criticism, matured into a tremendous leader, was fearless on the court, aware of the level he and Robinson needed to play at for this team to succeed, and unafraid to get in his teammates faces.

"I wouldn't want to hear nobody yelling at me other than him," said an emotional Johnson. "I tip my hat to him. He grew up. He grew up a lot in front of my eyes. I respect him because a lot of people from the media to our fans, they doubted him. They doubted that he could lead this team being a senior. I feel like he proved everybody wrong. Even though we lost this game he took us a long ways."

?

"He's a terrific leader, too. He's a good assistant coach. I mean, he coaches our guys. He understands the game. He has great feel," Self said. ?

It wasn't just Thomas and Tyshawn who made remarkable strides. Travis Releford became a solid contributor and defensive stopper. Jeff Withey set an NCAA record for blocked shots and became one nation's best at denying shots around the rim. Elijah Johnson became a confident player ready, willing, and able to make the big play. Kevin Young and Conner Teahan were able and effective contributors off a short bench. Self performed one of his best coaching jobs and was deservedly named the Naismith Coach of the Year.

It took every single player on this team and a masterful coaching job to take Kansas from a bewildered team that lost in Kansas City to Davidson to a Big 12 champion and finally to a team that stood 2 possessions away from possibly winning a national title. Like Self said, you felt like this team "just ran out of time" against the Wildcats.

When the final buzzer sounded the dejected sentiment wasn't over losing a chance at a 4th national title, it was more because this group would never get to compete together again. Listening to them talk about each other and the value of their time spent together makes you understand why this group of Jayhawks will always be remembered fondly.

"The whole run just being with these guys everyday it's a special thing. We're just happy we grew as a family. That's the thing I'm going to miss most," said junior center Jeff Withey.

"When you get a puppy and you watch that puppy grow up and it dies, that hurts," said Johnson drawing the analogy. "To see something grow up in front of you, to see something develop in front of you, that hurts, especially something that wasn't supposed to develop into what it developed into. I'm proud of this team. I love this team. I'll remember this team forever."

"From start to finish, there's been no team I've been around improved this much, there's been no team I've been around compete this hard, there's been no team I've been around that was able to take whatever situation dealt them and respond to it favorably, and there's no team I've been around that represented our university or ourselves, our their families, any better than this one has," continued Self. "It's a pretty proud moment to be able to coach a team like this and a group of individuals like this."

It's a proud moment for fans too and this KU team has worked its way into the hearts of Jayhawk nation.


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