Kansas 78, Arizona 75
-- There is something that turns the stomach about always watching other teams win, other teams advance, other teams get the seedings. Today in the NCAA tournament's West Region final, the No. 2 seed Kansas Jayhawks simply decided not to watch anymore, instead taking by force what they believed to be theirs in a 78-75 upset of No. 1 seed Arizona.
"If we were going to go down, I wanted to go down firing," said Kirk Hinrich, who scored 28 points as part of an aggressive assault that featured 10 first-half steals. Earlier this season, a passive Jayhawks squad watched Arizona rebound from a 20-point deficit to win a game on Kansas's court; before the tournament started, Kansas players watched teams such as Texas and Oklahoma grab No. 1 seeds they thought should be theirs.
Today, they watched nothing but Hinrich, who not only led the team in points but also made a key block with less than seven seconds remaining. Arizona had been making one final push, with guard Jason Gardner setting up for a three-pointer on the left side. Hinrich got a piece of the ball, and although Luke Walton fed it back to Gardner once more, Gardner's second attempt clanged off the back of the rim, allowing Kansas (29-7) to advance to its second consecutive Final Four.
As the Jayhawks celebrated, Walton (18 points, 10 rebounds) stood with his hands on his hips, looking as if he was about to crumble. "They got a lot of loose balls, but that's usually a result of hustle," he said a few minutes later. "When it comes down to it, they beat us."
Arizona (28-4) didn't help itself much. The entire game had gotten off to a somewhat stunted start when an electrical short in the arena's main scoreboard delayed tip-off, but while officials handled the problem quickly, the Wildcats opened the first half unnerved.
Passes went careening out of control. Shots refused to fall. Walton, who has been handling basketballs since he was a baby, suddenly seemed unable to keep one in his hands for more than a moment without fumbling it. Even when Walton did manage to get his grip, he couldn't find his aim, shooting 1 for 5 in the opening 10 minutes.
"In the first half, I think they had 20 points off turnovers, and most of those came in the first 10-12 minutes," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. By the middle of the first half, Kansas was on a 14-3 run, and Arizona was helpless; even Salim Stoudamire's attempt to drive to the basket fell apart at the top of the key as he ran into a wall of Kansas defenders.
It took some stronger defense for the Wildcats to finally start finding their rhythm offensively -- as soon as they stemmed the tide of Kansas points at one end, they began to find their way on the other, going on a 15-2 run of their own. The performance was solid enough to encourage the Arizona fans who filled more than half of sold-out Arrowhead Pond, as well as the Wildcats players themselves, who at halftime ran off the floor waving their fists.
They had cut Kansas's lead to 38-35, and with each step toward their locker room, they reminded themselves of the last time they had faced the Jayhawks, in Lawrence in January. They played a creaky first half that night only to come back to win in a rout, and this game was feeling eerily similar.
In the Kansas locker room too, the memories lingered.
"I challenged our guys and said we would not give in, that we would go back and attack," Kansas Coach Roy Williams said of his halftime speech. "That's what we did, and I think our mind-set made the difference."
Indeed, as soon as Kansas was back on the court, guard Keith Langford (13 points) grabbed a monster rebound to set the team on a 14-2 run as for nearly four minutes, Arizona went without a score. Startled, the Wildcats answered with a surge of their own, but each time they pushed, Kansas pulled, refusing to watch yet another opportunity go by.
"We were not going to roll over and play dead," Williams said, and when regional semifinal star Nick Collison got into foul trouble, Hinrich picked up the slack. Unlike Collison, Hinrich had struggled in the Jayhawks' win over Duke on Thursday, but tonight he was razor-sharp, and after Langford put Kansas ahead for good with a cutting layup through traffic, Hinrich blocked Gardner's attempt.
Kansas advanced. It was the others who would have to watch.
"I was sick -- if [Gardner] would have made it, they would have had to carry me off the court," Langford said. "I mean, really."