One fan sitting in the third row opposite the Southern Illinois bench was certainly hopeful her team could shock the No. 1 seed Jayhawks.
“I don’t think they’re going to be able to handle our defense,” she said. “I don’t think they’ve ever seen our type of defense before, and I really feel we have a chance.”
“We’re going to win by 10.”
Another fan standing nearby was especially fired up. “Tear ‘em boys,” he yelled. “Tear ‘em up. You’re soft Kansas. Hey Julian...you’re going down."
While the next two hours proved to be a battle, KU did not go down in its 61-58 thrilling victory. The ‘Hawks did not wilt. They quite simply would not let their championship dreams fade away. The Saluki fans never stopped cheering, but the Jayhawks never stopped believing.
Not when the ‘Hawks were forced into a slow down game, not when they had their jerseys pulled and tugged on all night, not when SIU ran off nine straight points to open the second half and led by six points, and certainly not when momentum appeared to be in SIU’s favor up 43-39 with 9:19 remaining in the game.
After rallying and tying the game at 45-all, KU would trail just once more before taking the lead for good on a Darnell Jackson layup with 5:04 left. KU coach Bill Self stood up and clapped, urging his team on at the defensive end. And when KU forced two turnovers and scored again on a bucket by Brandon Rush at the 3:55 mark (Kansas led 52-49), the Jayhawk section behind the team bench felt the madness and rose to their feet and cheered. Director of basketball operations Ronnie Chalmers got in on the excitement, too, standing up and pumping his right fist in the air.
KU stretched the lead to 58-53 with 1:23 left before SIU raced back behind five points by star guard Jammal Tatum and trailed 59-58 with 47 seconds remaining.
Then, in the biggest play of the year, Rush made the biggest play of his life. He drove the right side of the lane for a backbreaking basket.
“Mario (Chalmers) drove in the lane and forced help, and he pitched it out to me,” Rush said. “I got in the lane and saw an opening, and just threw it up there and shot a little floater. It’s something I dream about. I’ve made a few of them this season. I feel pretty good. I think it was probably the toughest one because it was a tough game.”
Tatum had a chance to tie the game with 10 seconds left but missed a three-pointer.
“It’s a shot I’ve practiced numerous times in the gym late at night and in the morning, between classes,” he said. “It felt good, the release felt good, I didn’t make it, and that’s part of basketball. That’s part of competing. That’s part of athletics. Sometimes things go the way you want them, sometimes they don’t.”
After KU sophomore Julian Wright missed two straight free throws with two seconds to go, SIU had one last chance to send the game into overtime when guard Tony Young heaved up a desperation 40-foot shot. It missed, and KU survived. The ‘Hawks won despite scoring their second fewest points all season.
“I thought it would be the first one to 60 wins,” Self said. “We had to shoot 62 percent to score 61. That doesn’t happen very often. We did some good things offensively; we did some really poor things offensively. ...To beat Southern Illinois, you can’t run plays, you got to have players make plays. I thought that was what really helped us. We had some players step up and make plays.”
Yes, Rush and Chalmers made big-time plays down the stretch and got to the basket. Rush hit all six shots and led KU with 12 points, while Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Darrell Arthur scored nine points each. Darnell Jackson also added eight points and five rebounds in 21 minutes.
“I thought Shady (Arthur) and Darnell played great,” Self said. “It’s a hard game for Sasha (Kaun) to play. Julian wasn’t a factor like he normally would be. So it was up to those two. Those were our two best post guys without question. ...One unsung hero was Rodrick Stewart. Rodrick (three points in nine minutes) gave us some good minutes tonight and was a factor in us winning."
Kansas won despite playing against the best defense it’s faced all season and committing 19 turnovers and losing the rebound battle 31-26. The Jayhawks, though, shot a scorching 59.5 percent from the field and held SIU to just 36.8 percent shooting (24 percent from three-point range).
“I’m happy,” Self said. “We’re playing on Saturday. I’m very happy. ‘Did we play great? No.’ You’re not going to play great. You’re not going to look good all the time playing Southern Illinois. I thought we showed toughness.”
And it only gets tougher on Saturday when the ‘Hawks aim to beat the Bruins and earn their 13th Final Four berth in school history.