For a coach who has been wrongly criticized and maligned for two first-round losses in the NCAA tournament and losing in the Elite Eight four times, Self was now on top of the college basketball world.
With the prized net in hand, he turned to the rabid Jayhawks’
fans in the stands and pumped his right fist in the air Then he turned
around and faced the KU fans on the other side and pumped his left fist
After soon visiting with his team in the celebratory locker room, Self
and the five starters walked out the door. As they headed toward the
interview room for the postgame press conference, a reporter quickly
asked Self and the players how they felt.
“Unbelievable,” Self said.
“I feel really great,” senior Russell Robinson said
with a huge smile. “Number one.”
“It’s a great way to go out,” added
fellow senior Darnell Jackson.
After the press conference, Self met with a group of reporters across
from the KU locker room and talked about one of the greatest nights of
his life. Fittingly, for a man who had achieved college
basketball’s biggest prize, Self stood tall on a small
platform to get some breathing room from all the microphones and
cameras in his face.
The first question to Self was if the Jayhawks should be coined Mario
and the Miracles after Mario Chalmers hit a three-pointer with two
seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime and cap off a
dramatic nine-point comeback with over two minutes remaining.
“That’s pretty good,” Self said.
However, the championship coach quickly added with a smile:
“We got to come up with something different because it was
Danny and the Miracles (in 1988). We got to be more creative than that.
“Mario made just an unbelievable play.”
While Chalmers’ shot was KU’s one shining moment,
the Jayhawks also made other great plays down the stretch to rally from
their nine-point deficit. And they made their free throws. While the
2003 Kansas team shot just 12 of 30 from the line in its loss to
Syracuse in the title game, this Jayhawk squad made 14 of 15 free
throws against Memphis, compared to just 12 of 19 for the Tigers.
“We competed hard, we didn’t play great,”
Self said. “But when it counted the most, we played
unbelievable. Guys just didn’t quit. I’d be lying
if I said I didn’t (have doubts). But the thing I told them,
‘We will get a break. When we catch a break, we just got to
get stops one at a time and go score.’
“The breaks were when they missed one of two free throws
(Derrick Rose with 10 seconds remaining in regulation) and two of two
(Chris Douglas-Roberts with 16 seconds left). Sherron (Collins) made an
unbelievable play to make the steal and made the three in the corner
(with 1:46 left in regulation). When it was four with a minute and half
left, there’s still plenty of time. That play got us right
back in it.”
Self said KU’s body language was good in the timeout huddles
and on the court late in the game.
“It’s probably easier to be positive because you
know it’s the end,” Self said. “Maybe if
it was in January, guys’ shoulders would stoop, but that was
not the case. The frustration was close to setting in, but it
hadn’t quite set in yet.”
Of course, Self was overjoyed when Chalmers’ three sent the
game into overtime. So how long was the rainbow shot in the air?
“This whole weekend has been a blur to me,” Self
said. “Really, the last eight or nine days has been a blur.
It didn’t seem like it was in the air longer than
Davidson’s (Jason Richards’ missed three-pointer
with two seconds left in the Elite Eight) was in there. Isn’t
it a fine line between losing and winning? That could have ended our
season and we make the same shot that they missed. In athletics, you
understand that if you’re around it every day.”
Despite winning the national title, Self said he didn’t view
himself any differently than he did before the game.
“I don’t buy into all of that stuff,”
Self said. “The outside public may view people who win a
championship differently. But coaches know you don’t get
smarter because a hard shot goes in than if it doesn't go in.”
Self instead praised the senior class of Robinson, Jackson, Jeremy Case, Rod Stewart and Sasha Kaun, who won seven conference
championships (four Big 12 titles and three postseason tournament
championships) and now the ultimate prize — the national
“It’s one of the winningest classes,”
Self said. “It’s got to go down as maybe not the
winningest class from a numbers standpoint, but as one of the best
classes ever. Not the best players, not (the ones who) scored the most
points, but gave us a chance to win every night.”
Indeed, they did. And they cherished every moment afterwards in the
jubilant locker room. Case sat by his locker cradling the game ball by
his face with a peaceful smile he never wanted to let go. Next to his
right was Kaun, who sat in his chair and answered questions from
reporters knowing his journey from Russia to the United States at age
16 had culminated in the greatest night of his life.
Across from Kaun was Stewart, who stood proudly on crutches talking
about the gutty performance of his teammates. While he wasn’t
able to play with his knee injury, Stewart never felt any better.
Heck, he even wanted to play.
“Knowing my last game as a Jayhawk we won, that’s a
great feeling,” Stewart said. “I was going to kid
around with coach and tell him to put me in just for a second, crutches
and all, but I didn’t want to test it.”
Stewart didn’t “test it,” but his
teammates scored straight A’s with their remarkable comeback.
“Most teams would have folded when they were down like we
were, but that just tells a lot about our players,” Stewart
said. “We never fold and we never give up.”
Next to Stewart’s left sat Arthur, who was overwhelmed with
emotion. He spoke of his heart-gripping talk with his mom and grandma
after the game.
“They were crying so hard,” said Arthur, who had
one of the best games of his career with 20 points and 10 rebounds,
“I just hugged them. They told me they were so proud of me. I
just told them I loved them. Tears were coming down my face. I was
balling out there. Those were tears of happiness. It was crazy out
Like Arthur and all the Jayhawks , Kaun was thrilled to be national
“It is truly unbelievable right now,” he said.
“We proved we are the best team in America.”
And then there was director of basketball operations Ronnie Chalmers
sitting down talking quietly with reporters. He was so proud of his
team, so proud of his son, Mario, who was named the
tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“I feel like I hit the lottery,” Chalmers said.
Speaking of the lottery, former Jayhawk standout Julian Wright and
current New Orleans Hornets’ rookie and lottery pick was even
here to join his ex-teammates in the celebration.
As the locker room was closing and reporters made their way out, senior
walk-on Brad Witherspoon couldn’t contain his excitement.
From growing up in small Humbolt, Kan., to walking on at Kansas, to now
realizing his greatest dream of winning a national
championship, Witherspoon had great reason to smile knowing
he'll be a part of history forever.
“It feels like a million bucks, man, a 100,000 million
bucks,” Witherspoon said. (It’s great to) go out on
a win, on top.”
For the Jayhawks and Self, this was indeed the crowning moment of their
“Professionally, this is the best,” Self said.
“It still doesn’t mean more than your kids being
born and all those things. To fans, it maybe should, but trust me, I
had the adrenaline flowing just as much ...
Professionally, I can’t imagine it being any better than
Wrapping Up From San Antonio
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