While the UCLA players were celebrating their second straight Final Four appearance and cutting down the nets, a horde of reporters, sportscasters, and photographers were jockeying for position outside the KU locker room. When the doors finally opened, the media rushed inside to get the scoop for the evening news and tomorrow’s newspapers in California, Kansas, and throughout the country.
This locker room at the HP Pavilion was a little different than the past two seasons when I saw guys like Aaron Miles and Christian Moody weep openly after losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. (Miles was a senior when KU fell to Bucknell in 2005, while Moody ended his career last season against Bradley). There were no seniors on this squad and the players contained their emotions. But make no mistake. They felt the pain of having played their last game of the year and coming so close to reaching the Final Four.
"It's kind of hard to put into words how I feel right now," said Robinson, who scored 11 points (two-of-two from three-point range) with five steals. "I'm just kind of hoping I wake up and it's like a dream or something."
No, it wasn’t a dream. There would be no more practices. No more games. And for sophomore guard Brandon Rush, this might have been the last game of his college career. Rush, who was named to the Wooden All-American team on Thursday, led KU with 18 points and five rebounds. This capped off a terrific NCAA tournament. In four games, Rush shot 62 percent from the field (23-of-37) and 82 percent from three-point range (9-of-11) while averaging 14.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game.
So naturally — and how it’s been all season — Rush was the the center of attention. The questions from reporters never stopped, and when one writer finished up his questions and left to interview another player, it seemed at least two more media members would hurry over to Rush, who was sitting in a chair by the wall.
“’Were the missed layups (19) being from sped up?’ ‘Can you tell us what coach said to you guys after the game?’ ‘Is (UCLA’s) defense better than SIU?’ ‘I got to ask this question Brandon, your future. When do you start thinking about it?’”
Reporters asked these questions and so much more. Over and over again. And as smooth and polite as ever, Rush gazed straight ahead and never lost poise. On a night when KU got “rattled” and “sped up” because they were trying, as Self said, “so hard,” Rush was in complete control.
“You can’t explain it,” Rush said about a game where KU shot just 41.1 percent from the field (fourth lowest of season) and committed a season-high 21 turnovers. “We got wherever we wanted. It was about us missing layups, and they did pressure us out a little bit so that forced careless turnovers. (We) didn’t hold on to the ball and threw the ball away when someone was open. ...We got a little rattled at the end.”
Asked to compare UCLA’s defense with Southern Illinois (KU beat SIU, 61-58, in the Sweet 16), Rush gave the nod to the Salukis.
“I don’t think they’re as quick as SIU,” Rush said. “I don’t think anybody is that quick.”
Fellow sophomore Julian Wright sat nearby and agreed with his teammate that KU just didn’t have it this night.
“We missed a lot of shots we usually make,” said Wright, who scored eight points (four-of-seven shooting) and grabbed five boards. “Give credit to their defense. They really did a good job at contesting shots and making it real hard. But we had athleticism we showed all year to finish shots and get in there and make things happen. It’s just a tough offensive night.”
Yes, it was a night in stark contrast to KU’s games in Chicago in the first two rounds (March 16 and 18), when the ‘Hawks scored 107 points versus Niagara and 88 against Kentucky. Self said after the 40-point win over Niagara (Kansas shot a blistering 54.1 percent and 66.7 percent from three-point range) that KU’s hot shooting was “contagious.” Wright used the same word to describe the ‘Hawks poor marksmanship against the Bruins.
“Everyone had opportunities to make shots,” Wright said. “Me personally missed a few easy shots, even dunks, layups. It’s contagious in a way. Sometimes the basket gets smaller and smaller. Obviously, it makes the other team get a lot of confidence. That’s kind of how the game went, especially in the second half. They were making big shots at the end of the game.”
And the partisan Bruin crowd at the HP Pavilion was never louder then. Chants of “U-C-L-A, U-C-L-A” echoed throughout the arena. Rush, though, dismissed the notion about the Bruins having the so called “home court” advantage.
“The crowd didn’t play into it at all,” he said. “We had our blinders on. We didn’t pay too much attention to it. We had our own fans cheering, too. Everytime we did something, it was loud (also). It didn’t feel like a road game.”
Despite the loss, Rush and the ‘Hawks could reflect back with great fondness over this season.
“It was very special for us just to get past that first-round hump and then come to the Elite Eight,” Rush said. “We won two championships (Big 12 title and conference tournament). It was a pretty good season.”
Indeed it was.
“I think we had a great season,” said sophomore guard Mario Chalmers, who scored just two points but dished out seven assists and had six steals. “We were 33-5. We made it to the Elite Eight. Not many teams can say they made it to the Elite Eight. ...We just got to keep working.”
Sitting next to Chalmers was freshman forward Darrell Arthur, who posted four points and four rebounds in 24 minutes. A reporter now asked him what Self told the guys after the game.
“He said we played good and we played tough, but it just wasn’t our day,” Arthur replied.
It seems the KU coach had some more words to say. He revealed his message to his players to a group of reporters outside the Jayhawk locker room.
“I told them they’ve been great ambassadors for our university, first and foremost,” Self said. “I’m proud to be their coach. I love how how they sacrificed for the good of the team. We’re all disappointed and hurt, but life is a learning experience. You got to adjust and move on. It wasn’t our day, but walk out with your head high.”
As I left the KU locker room that night, I took one last glance at Rush. He was now sitting alone collecting his thoughts while gazing down with his long legs outstretched. I then asked myself if I had seen his last game in a Jayhawk uniform.
“I don’t know,” Rush answered when asked that question countless times by reporters earlier. “I haven’t thought about it at all.”
I do know this. Rush and his teammates can always hold their heads up high. KU fans can do the same as the painful loss to UCLA eases in the coming days and weeks, and the Jayhawk Nation looks back and celebrates the accomplishments of this team — a squad which won the school’s 50th conference championship, eclipsed 1,900 wins, and whose 33 victories this season tied for fourth best in KU history.
Let the healing begin.