AP Photos Courtesy Getty Images by Gregory Shamus
And then there were ones. For the first time ever, four No.1 seeds came out of their respective regions each advancing to the Men’s Division I Final Four in San Antonio next weekend.
After Memphis rolled past Texas 85-67 to win the South region, all that was left was for Kansas to beat upstart Davidson and win the Midwest. It didn’t come easy for Bill Self’s Jayhawks, who had to survive a Jason Richards wide miss from 25 feet before hanging on to a well earned 59-57 win over Stephen Curry and the pesky 10th seeded Wildcats.
They were able to do so thanks to some splendid aggressive man-to-man defense which featured a box in one on the tournament’s leading scorer Curry helping to wear him down. The sophomore who was justifiably named the region’s Most Outstanding Player finished just 9-of-25 from the floor and misfired on 12-of-16 contested three’s. Though he drained his last one which put the outcome in doubt for the topseeded Jayhawks, Curry ran out of gas after netting 15 in an effective first half.
“We just forced him into tough shots in the second half,â€Â New York City product Russell Robinson noted after finishing without any points and an uncharacteristic four turnovers despite helping blanket Curry. â€œWe didnâ€™t let him get into a rhythm.â€Â
“Fatigue was definitely a factor,â€ a disappointed Curry later admitted. â€œThat four-guard rotation they had really took a toll.â€
As it turned out, the 20 year-old Charlotte native was human after all despite demonstrating such poise throughout a brilliant tournament which saw him get 30-or-more against Davidson’s first three victims- No.7 Gonzaga, No.2 Georgetown and No.3 Wisconsin.
It looked like he was well on his way to another 30-point day with 22 and stillÂ plenty of time left but Kansas really picked up the pressure forcing Curry into some ill advised shots. In fact, it was his teammates who stepped up giving hopeful fans who came to Detroit what they wanted to see. An actual competitive Regional Final. With apologies to Rick Pitino and Louisville, the other three games sucked lacking any late drama which is what most want to see unless your name is John “JPG” Giagnorio. 😉
Kansas won thanks to the key contribution of overlooked senior center Sasha Kaun. The 6-11 250 pound Melbourne Florida native took advantage of his size advantage, hurting the smaller Wildcats by scoring inside for 13 points hitting on all six field goals. He also grabbed 10 rebounds.
With less than nine minutes to go, it looked like Cinderella might spoil the party. It wasn’t because of Curry either but rather roommateÂ Bryant Barr, who dialed from long distance three consecutive times to give Davidson a 51-47 lead allowing the packed house to sense another possible upset.
The big question heading in was whether Kansas would wilt if put in a tight game. The Midwest’s top seed answered myself andÂ other skeptics byÂ outscoringÂ Davidson 12-2Â thanks to the combination of Kaun and Brandon Rush (8 of 12 pts in 2nd half). Rush, who had been ice cold for most of the well played defensive game finally made some plays including a nice runner off the glass as part of a three-point play (he didn’tÂ get fouled but that’s the breaks).
Suddenly, it was Kansas by six with the finish line very much in sight. Especially when Curry had prior misfired on a wide open trey from the left arc off a Jason Richards feed which would’ve made it a one-point game. Instead,Â Rush swished a pair of free throws to help the Jayhawks extended their lead to six, matching the biggest of the game.
After another Curry miss, it looked like the end for the Wildcats but the Jayhawks couldn’t put the final nail down giving their resilient opponents one more slight crack with under 60 seconds to play. Following one of two at the line from teammate Thomas Sander,Â the Wildcats’ hustle allowed them to get the ball back. When Curry quickly came off a double screen to drain one from downtownÂ suddenly slicing it to 59-57 with still 54 seconds to go, it was back to being up in the air.
Davidson turned up the defensive pressure forcing Kansas into a bad shot before the shot clock expired getting the ball back down two with under 20 seconds remaining.
This is what they came for. This is why you turned on CBS today. To see this kind of exciting finish where here was another underdog trying to pull another George Mason and knock off a major heavyweight to its hit list of Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin.
Following a timeout, everyone knew who would have the ball. Maybe that was the problem for Davidson. Instead of allowing Richards to take the Kansas guards off the dribble, they opted to let Curry decide it. There was no way the Jayhawks were going to allow that to happen. They wisely doubled forcing Dell Curry’s kid into some indecisiveness which cost his school in the end.
Instead of passing off to an open teammate at the top of the key, he continued to dribble to the right before drawing another double and passing back to Richards, whose desperation off balance 25-footer hit off the left of the backboard.
“They had a lot of bodies and a lot of athletic guys who could chase me,â€ Curry said. â€œThey did make me work hard, and I had good looks at the end, but they werenâ€™t falling like they did all tournament. We canâ€™t hang our heads. We had opportunities. We just didnâ€™t execute.â€Â
It allowed Kansas to hold on for dear life and give their coach the big victory he had lacked. Self had guided three differentÂ schools to this juncture before only to bow out. However, this time would be much sweeter allowing an emotional coach to bend down and slap the floor as if to say, ‘Thank you.’
Who could blame him? He’d been doubted by many including yours truly. And for once, his team in the face of adversity rose up to the challenge advancing to a Final Four showdown against former coach Roy Williams and North Carolina Tar Heels.
“We expected to win,â€ Davidson coach Bob McKillop stated.
â€œWe didnâ€™t come here content or satisfied. We expected to win. This has been a 12-month mission. It came down to one final play. Thatâ€™s the beauty of this game that we play.â€
Notes: Kansas guard Mario ChalmersÂ matchedÂ Kaun’s output with 13Â includingÂ three triples. … Richards finished with seven points and a game high nine assists.Â The seniorÂ Davidson point guardÂ led the nation in assists averaging better than eight. With a strong showing, he boosted his NBA Draft stock. While manyÂ willÂ point to a talented crop which could include Memphis’ Derrick Rose (21 pts, 9 assists, 6 rebs vs Texas), USC’s O.J. Mayo, UCLA’s Darren Collison, Texas’ D.J. Augustin (16 pts, 4-of-18 FG, 3 assists, 4 turnovers) and UNC’s Ty Lawson, Richards should also be in the mix along with Stanford’s Mitch Johnson andÂ Marquette’s Dominic James. … The loss snapped Davidson’sÂ nationÂ best 25-game win streak. … It will be Kansas’ 13th trip to the Final Four and firstÂ in five years when theyÂ fell to Syracuse in the championship game.