“This is KU’s time,” he said.
As the hottest team in the country, it certainly looked like the Jayhawks were destined to make their 13th trip to the Final Four in school history.
But almost three hours later at 8:18 p.m., KU’s dream season was suddenly over. UCLA star junior guard Arron Afflalo had just dribbled out the final seconds of the clock and the Bruins knocked off Kansas, 68-55, to earn their second-straight Final Four berth and first back-to-back Final Four appearances since 1975 and ‘76.
The Bruins’ players stormed the court. They high-fived. They embraced. They jumped madly into the air and chest bumped each other. A resounding chorus of “U-C-L-A,
U-C-L-A” echoed throughout the arena. The players proudly put on their West Regional Championship T-shirts and hats before soon swarming their coach Ben Howland and NBC announcer Dick Enberg for the celebratory postgame interview.
“One more year. One more year,” the Bruin faithful chanted at Afflalo, who the fans hoped would return for his senior season after putting on a show with a game-high 24 points on 10-of-15 field-goal shooting.
“Yeah Bruins,” one fan screamed in the first row. “Collison (Darren), you’re the man.”
For the UCLA fans and their team, it was time to party. The Bruins were headed to Atlanta for the Final Four and 17th in school history. KU, meanwhile, was returning to Lawrence to contemplate what might have been and regroup for next year.
Kansas seemed to be riding the momentum late in the first half after a Brandon Rush three-pointer put the ‘Hawks up 27-21 with 5:58 remaining. But the Bruins stormed back and went on a 14-4 run to lead 35-31 at halftime.
UCLA led the rest of the game, and built an 11-point lead (46-35) with 13:26 left. Kansas cut the lead to five points with 5:23 remaining, but the ‘Hawks committed four turnovers and shot just two-of-eight the rest of the way. UCLA spread the floor with three minutes to go nursing a seven-point lead and KU was forced to foul.
Kansas shot a poor 41.1 percent from the field (36 percent in second half) and committed 21 turnovers this night. The ‘Hawks missed bunny after bunny, and got the ball stripped time after time. Freshman guard Sherron Collins even missed badly on a rare air ball. UCLA countered by making shots all night (53.3 percent shooting and eight of 17 from three-point range) and playing tenacious defense. The Bruins even held the advantage on fastbreak points (10-6) against arguably the best transition team in America.
No, it just wasn’t KU’s night.
“Obviously,we’re disappointed,” said KU coach Bill Self. “We played a very, very good team today, a team that can win it all. I thought for the first 15 minutes, we played very, very well. Missed a lot of shots, but got the ball where we wanted to get it. And then the last 25 minutes, I felt like they controlled the game. Certainly we missed some bunnies, but I think their presence had something to do with that.”
Afflalo (a first-team All-American) and Collison made the biggest presence. In addition to Afflalo’s 24 points, Collison scored 14 and hounded KU’s guards all night with five steals. They both also made huge backbreaking shots late in the shot clock.
“Two great players,” said KU sophomore guard Mario Chalmers. “I mean, tonight the hoop was as big as the ocean for them. They hit tough shots all night.”
And the Jayhawks didn’t make shots, shooting their fourth-lowest field-goal percentage of the year. Rush led KU with 18 points, but junior guard Russell Robinson was the only other Jayhawk in double figures with 11 points. Some of the players admitted afterwards they became rattled on offense. Self agreed.
“I think we got sped up some,” Self said. “We played young when we got behind. ...The guys want it so bad, just like everybody does still playing. Sometimes playing relaxed is the best way to shoot it. You need to be sped up on defense and relaxed on offense. We just never quite got to that point.”
Still, Self was proud how his team fought to the final buzzer and how they represented the university as great ambassadors all year.
“I feel bad for our guys because they’ve given us a great opportunity to have a great year just because of their focus, unselfishness,” Self said. “We got some really good, talented players. Everybody sacrificed for the good of the team, put away individual agendas.”
For now, though, Self and his players will feel the pain of playing their last game of the season and seeing their Final Four dreams end in San Jose.
“It hurts,” Self said. “I really felt like this was our year. I really felt like — I’m not saying a year to win it all, but I really felt like we were the best equipped team to make a strong run. And we did. It just wasn’t good enough.”
*West Regional All-Tournament Team:
Arron Afflalo-UCLA (Most Outstanding Player)
Jamaal Tatum-Southern Illinois