By John Feinstein
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
In the end, foul shooting and a foul not committed cost Memphis the national championship Monday night.
But the case can also be made that what won Kansas the national championship was the Jayhawks' experience in tight games. Playing in a tough conference all season, having to beat back their own self-doubts to withstand Davidson in the region final, having to hang on against an on-rushing North Carolina team Saturday -- all of it prepared the Jayhawks for their most difficult test in their most important game.
Down by nine with 2 minutes 12 seconds to play, Kansas never panicked. Memphis -- so close to its first national title -- was the team that lost its cool.
After the Tigers' Derrick Rose made one free throw with 10.8 seconds left to make the score 63-60, Kansas, out of timeouts, rushed the ball downcourt.
"If we were up three, we were fouling," Memphis Coach John Calipari said. "I thought we fouled Sherron [Collins] before he got the ball to [Mario] Chalmers, but we didn't foul him hard enough."
Collins was able to get the ball to Chalmers, who -- as always seems to happen in these situations -- swished a three-pointer over Rose's outstretched arm with 2.1 seconds left to tie the score at 63 and send it into overtime.
As soon as Chalmers's shot hit the shot, there wasn't much doubt about the final outcome. When you are that close to a national championship and then blow it, you likely won't survive in overtime. Memphis didn't. Kansas scored the first six points of the extra session and never looked back, winning an improbable -- but richly deserved -- national title.
So, in the first title game to go into overtime since 1997, Kansas cut down the nets, Kansas went home with the trophy, Kansas will be the team that is now part of college basketball history.
Memphis will look back on a superb 38-2 season but never forget the opportunity lost, one it can never get back. Few things in sports hurt more than an overtime loss in a championship game. The stunned looks on the players' faces in these situations always tell the stories.
Sadly, they won't remember the 38 wins, just the one loss that will stay in their memories forever.
From the beginning this was a night full of tension in spite of everyone's attempts to make this just another basketball game.
When Calipari and Bill Self met at center court for their NCAA-ordained pregame handshake, Calipari smiled and said, "Let's have fun."
This was the first championship game for both coaches. Deep down both knew that the first Monday night in April isn't about fun; it's about history. Memphis was trying to make history by winning its first national title and by winning a record 39 games. Kansas was trying to add to the national championships it had won in 1952 and 1988.
Monday night is also about two very good teams finding out if one can impose its will on the other. In the last two championship games, Florida proved early that it could dictate the tempo against UCLA and Ohio State, leading to blowouts. From the beginning it was apparent that wasn't going to be the case on this Monday night.
Memphis did jump to a 9-3 lead, but Kansas soon settled in and did the one thing it had to do if it was going to win the game: force Memphis to play half-court basketball. The Jayhawks were just as quick to loose balls as the Tigers, they controlled the boards throughout the first half (19-11) and, most important, they kept Rose out of the lane and turned him into a walk-it-up dribbler.
Rose's three-point play with 16:39 left put Memphis up 9-3. That was the last time he scored in the first half. Time after time, he found himself walking the ball upcourt because Kansas was back on defense, ready to double Rose anytime he got anywhere near the lane. If not for Chris Douglas-Roberts's 13 points, Memphis could have been in a serious hole at the half.
As it was, Kansas scored the last five points to lead 33-28. The last minute of the half summed up Memphis's frustration. With his team down five, Calipari called his use-it-or-lose it timeout (note to rules committee: this needs to be changed) with 1:02 left.
Rose walked the ball upcourt. Dribble, dribble, dribble -- drive in the lane. Except three Jayhawks were waiting, and he had to pass the ball backward to Antonio Anderson for a rushed three-point attempt as the shot clock was going off. The shot was a brick. Joey Dorsey managed to back-tap it, and Memphis re-set. More dribbling and passing. The Tigers did everything but try to set up a header off a corner kick. They ended up not getting a shot off before the buzzer.
As Calipari and his team walked off the court, they all kept looking at the scoreboard in disbelief. The Tigers had scored 19 points in the last 16:39. This from a team averaging just under 84 points per game during the tournament. That might not have been as shocking as North Carolina trailing Kansas 40-12 on Saturday night, but the look on the faces of players and coaches made it clear they weren't having very much fun.
Great teams adjust, though, and these were, without question, college basketball's two best teams this season. Both were accustomed to getting every loose ball and beating teams downcourt for easy baskets. That wasn't going to happen very often in this game.
So, they seesawed back and forth. Rose finally scored again -- after a 24-minute drought -- on a drive with 12:10 left to cut Kansas's lead to 43-42. He then hit a three-pointer -- the first he had hit this weekend -- to give Memphis the lead, 49-47, with 8:08 to go. Sensing a Memphis run, Self instantly called a timeout.
That stopped Rose's run for three minutes -- during the commercials. Once play began again, Rose's run continued. By the time he hit an off-balance bank shot that was first ruled a three-pointer but later changed to a two, he had scored 14 of 16 points -- and 11 in a row -- and the Tigers led 56-49 with 4:14 to go.
When Memphis built its lead to 60-51 with a little more than two minutes left, it appeared the Tigers would answer all of their doubters once and for all. But Memphis's free throw shooting -- even with Douglas-Roberts and Rose at the line -- finally broke down and so did their cool.
Kansas never blinked. Memphis blinked a little.
The team that blinks least wins Monday night, especially when the game becomes a 40-minute -- or, in this case, a 45-minute -- crucible of pressure. Memphis deserves kudos for a superb season.
Kansas deserves the championship.