From the day he first set foot on the campus of the University of Kansas as a freshman chosen to become one of college basketball's elite, Danny Manning has ducked the spotlight. Today though, he had to make a choice. He could duck the spotlight and Kansas would go home, one step short of the Final Four. Or, he could take over.
He took over.
When he was finished, North Carolina State was going home and Kansas was going on to Dallas, to a Final Four meeting with Duke after beating the Wolfpack, 75-67, before 16,800 in Kemper Arena.
Manning scored 12 straight points in the crunch when Kansas (35-3) went from five down to four up. He finished the game with 22 points and six rebounds. When the Jayhawks got their lead to four points, 7-foot-1 center Greg Dreiling, a non-factor most of this tournament, suddenly found life, dominating the inside down the stetch. He wound up with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
"We know when Danny wants the ball," Ron Kellogg said when it was over. "He shows us with his eyes, with his hands, with the way he moves. He knew we were in trouble and he wanted it.
"It was do or die and he did."
Kansas was in big trouble. North Carolina State (21-13) had followed its game plan to perfection, keeping the pace slow, trailing by 35-33 at halftime, then coming on with a burst to lead at 57-52 with 8:53 to play.
That lead came when Nate McMillan deflected Kellogg's pass to Ernie Myers, who raced downcourt for a layup. Fouled, Myers could have put the lead at 58-52. "I thought we had 'em," N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano said. "We could have been up six and then their shots become awfully tough. Then the home crowd works against them because the place is like a morgue. But we made a couple of mistakes and Manning, well, Manning is a great player."
Myers missed the foul shot. Kansas pushed the ball downcourt and Manning pulled up for a 12-foot shot in the lane. If he missed, there was no one around the basket from Kansas, N.C. State would have the ball, the lead and the clock.
"It was a bad shot," Valvano said. "Except it went in."
"I wanted to go inside with it, but I had a little room to shoot, so I shot," Manning said. "I was relieved when it went in."
Now it was 57-54. Time for North Carolina State to take its time, work the clock, get the ball inside to Charles Shackleford (20 points) or Chris Washburn (17) for a good shot. Instead, Washburn, trying to take a quick shot, traveled.
"I guess inexperience showed there," he said. "I was trying to do too much, too soon."
Manning had to do it all now. Quickly, he found a hole in the zone along the left base line, drove and made it 57-56. Valvano called time to make sure his team didn't panic amid the suddenly berserk crowd.
The Wolfpack worked patiently this time until McMillan found an opening and went straight down the lane. Dreiling moved to block his path. The whistle blew. Charge.
"I think he slid," Valvano said. "It was not a charge. That's a call I'll think about until Oct. 15."
Twenty seconds later, Manning drove the base line again, missed, but quickly scooped the rebound up and in. Kansas led, 58-57. Bennie Bolton, trying to match Manning, took a bad shot seconds later and Manning rebounded. Kansas Coach Larry Brown called time.
As he was telling his players to get the ball inside, Dreiling remembered Kellogg turning to him and saying: "You don't want the ball, do you?"
That, Dreiling said, got him angry. "I swiped him with my towel," he said. "But I know why he did it. He's just that intense."
"I wanted to make him mad," Kellogg said. "When Greg Dreiling is mad, no one can stop him."
Exaggeration maybe, but the exchange seemed to get Dreiling going. From then on, every Wolfpack miss was his rebound and he did want the ball inside. First though, Manning -- off Dreiling's sweet kick-out pass -- made a 12-footer to make it 60-57.
Washburn broke the 8-0 string by making one of two free throws to get it to 60-58, but Manning went over everyone to put in Kellogg's miss. It was 62-58.
"Danny did a great job during that stretch on offense but the key was our defense," said Brown, who coached UCLA to the Final Four in 1980. "We pushed them out a little and only gave them one shot."
In fact, the Wolfpack went 6:03 without a field goal after Myers' layup. When Dreiling rebounded Hunter's miss and made it 64-58, the Wolfpack looked finished.
Not quite. Washburn made two foul shots, then after Kellogg missed, Shackleford took Myers' pass inside and made it 64-62 with 2:50 to play.
Now, for both teams, the season had boiled down to a couple of possessions. The Wolfpack set up in man-to-man, unable to stay in its switching zones because of Manning. With the shot clock way down, Manning forced a shot. He missed and the rebound bounced around.
Suddenly, there was Dreiling, reaching past Shackleford and Washburn for the ball. When he went back up with it, Washburn swatted it. Goaltending. It was 66-62.
"That was as big a play as there was in the game," Kellogg said later. "When we're getting it from both Danny and Greg, we're pretty tough to beat."
McMillan made a foul shot 15 seconds later. One more crucial possession. This time, with Manning blanketed, the ball went inside to Dreiling. He turned, rolling his oft-errant hook shot off his fingertips. It was 68-63.
"It was a special thing for me," Dreiling said. "I won three high school state championships but it's taken me five years in college to get here. I'm glad the dry spell finally ended."
So were his teammates. The hook was the hook for the Wolfpack, as it turned out. McMillan's miss and another rebound by Dreiling ended the suspense.
Kansas was going to Dallas. That thought even made Manning smile. He sat and talked about how much his teammates had done, but he knew, as everyone knew, that his 12-point stretch had been the difference.