Wildcats Prove To Be Tough Customers

DETROIT — As Jason Richards' desperation three-point shot clanged off the backboard at the buzzer, Cole Aldrich came running off the bench to embrace Sherron Collins. All the Jayhawks jumped in the air and hugged after beating Davidson, 59-57, in the Elite Eight to reach the school's 13th Final Four.

But maybe no embrace was more meaningful than when seniors Russell Robinson and Jeremy Case hugged at midcourt.

“He said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘I love you, too,’” Robinson said in the locker room afterwards, a souvenir net draped around his neck. “It was a very emotional moment for us. When we’re out there playing, we’re not just out there playing for ourselves, we’re out there playing for guys like Jeremy who prepares every day in practice for games like this.”

Sitting nearby, Case expressed what that moment at midcourt meant to him.

“It was a great feeling,” he said. “We’ve been through so much together. We wanted it so bad. We said to each other before the game, ‘This is it, we got to give it our all. We got to make sure we get to the (Final) four.’ Words really can’t describe it. I’m excited, but I’m also relieved because we’ve been so close with the Elite Eight and finally got over the hump.”

After losing in the Elite Eight to Georgia Tech in 2004 (Case is the only current player from that team) and to UCLA last season, the Jayhawks now head to San Antonio for the Final Four, where they’ll face former KU coach Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels.

But it certainly wasn’t easy for the No. 1 seed Jayhawks to get past No. 10 seed Davidson.

Both teams came out cold; the scored was tied at 9-9 at the 10:01 mark in the first half after Mario Chalmers hit a three. Davidson star Stephen Curry then caught fire, scoring 10 straight points. Chalmers got hot himself, with two more threes and a pull-up jumper at the free-throw line. In what KU coach Bill Self called a “grind-it out-game,” there were seven ties and three lead changes the first half.

Davidson was down just 30-28 at halftime despite shooting 34.4 percent from the field. However, the Wildcats scored six points off nine KU turnovers, and only turned the ball over three times themselves.

After Brandon Rush’s six straight points, KU built a 43-37 lead with 12:12  left in the game. However, Davidson stormed back behind three treys from reserve guard Bryant Barr. Curry then hit a three pointer at the 8:52 mark to give Davidson a 51-47 edge.

On a night when KU struggled to score (the Jayhawks shot just 41.7 percent in the second half and 44.2 percent for the game), the Cinderella Wildcats looked like the glass slipper might fit after all.

But that’s when KU went to work. First, Chalmers stole the ball and made a layup. Collins drilled a three. Sasha Kaun scored a layup. Darrell Arthur hit a a jumper. Kaun hit a free throw, and then Rush hit two more charities. Meanwhile, Curry, who scored 15 points the first half, missed seven straight shots.

The Jayhawks were suddenly up 59-53 with 1:15 remaining before Davidson made one last push. Forward Thomas Sander made a free throw, and Curry finally hit a three with 55 seconds remaining to make it a two-point game (59-57).

KU had a chance to likely put the Wildcats away on the next possession, but Collins missed an off-balanced three as the shot clock expired with 21 seconds left. Davidson quickly called a 30-second timeout with one last chance to keep its season alive.

That’s when Self had a clear message to his team in the timeout huddle.

“I just told them, ‘We are not going to make them shoot a three,’” Self said. “’We’re going to make them be drivers.’ From my standpoint, that’s the only way you could lose the game.”

Davidson head coach Bob McKillop put the ball in Curry’s hands. However, KU pressured the star and backcourt mate Jason Richards was left to shoot a desperation 28-footer at the buzzer.

It missed, and KU was off to the Final Four.

“I was hoping and praying it wouldn’t go in,” Kaun said. “It was the longest (time) shot I’ve seen in a while.”

“From my view, it looked like it had a real good chance to go in,” Self said. “Of course, it was wide left. Then the horn blew. It was like, ‘Why is the horn going off?’ I couldn’t believe that 16 seconds already passed.”

And Self’s immediate reaction after the buzzer?

“I would say instead of jubilation, it was probably more relief. I just wanted to make sure I shook hands (with the players and McKillop), and the officials left the court so they couldn’t put any more time back on the clock,” Self said with a smile.

Kaun and Chalmers were the two heroes in this game. Chalmers scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half, while Kaun added nine of his 13 points after halftime. (They were both high scorers for Kansas.) Kaun went six for six from the field and also grabbed six rebounds. Robinson and Rush also played great defense on Curry (25 points), holding him to just nine of 25 shooting (4-16 three-point FG).

Curry, who had scored at least 30 points in his last four NCAA tournament games (dating back to last year), played the entire contest.

“I think we wore him down,” Robinson said. “I think he was a little tired. He’s a great player, he gets his shot off anytime he wants. I think more than anything, we forced him into some bad shots.”

The great teams win when they don’t play their best. Robinson said that was definitely the case tonight.

“We didn’t play good at all,” he said, adding KU never got into any rhythm. “I have to give Davidson credit. They played well defensively, but we found a way to win. At this point in time, we survived and advanced.”

It was indeed a defensive and low-scoring game for both the normally high-powered Jayhawks’ and Wildcats’ attack.

“I don’t want to say we played poorly, because that takes away from Davidson,” Self said. “They muddied up the game for us very, very well. ... Our deal was, ‘Let’s run, let’s pressure.’  When things weren’t allowed to take place because of Davidson, I felt we got pretty stale or stagnant. The longer the game goes on and you can’t (play like you want to), then it gets a little frustrating. We had control of the game in the second half, up four or six. Then they go up four. But that’s when we played our best ball.”

And that “best ball” is taking KU to San Antonio.

Collins was asked about his thoughts when the final buzzer sounded.

“Final Four, finally,” he replied. “It was a sigh of relief. I don’t think it’s hit me all the way. It took a lot of work, but we finally did it. We’re all happy. I’m just so happy for the seniors and coach Self. This (moment) ranks right behind (having) my son. I’m speechless almost.”

Senior Rod Stewart was at a loss for words, too.

“It’s the all-time greatest moment in my life,” he said. “I’m just trying to hold back from crying in front of the guys. I don’t want to be the first one to cry. I’m just soaking it in. You got to cherish every moment like this.”

Self certainly did. After four losses in the Elite Eight (Tulsa in 2000, Illinois in 2001, and Kansas in 2004 and 2007), the KU coach finally made the Final Four.

“It didn’t take away any years of my life,” Self said about coming up short in the Elite Eight. “I never felt pressure for me to think of myself as being a good coach to go to the Final Four. That doesn’t register with me. But when it’s brought up so much, it wears on your family. Our players are great, I love them, but I’m probably as happy for my wife (Cindy) as anything. She lives and dies with every possession, and we’ve been so close so many times. In my opinion, even though we’re always going to get good players at Kansas, this was the year it needed to happen for the immediate future.”

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