Rhode Island Sends Kansas Home Early

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Roy Williams and his two All-Americans will be watching this year’s Final Four, not playing in it.

Top-seeded Kansas got outstanding performances from Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz, but didn’t have the quickness to stay with eighth-seeded Rhode Island, which won, 80-75, Sunday to advance to the Midwest Regional semifinals.

The early exit was another bitter loss for Williams, who hasn’t coached a Final Four team since 1993. His Jayhawks were top-ranked when they lost to Arizona in the regional semifinals last year. This team was ranked No. 2 in the country.


“I’m not sure how this one ranks [compared with the Arizona loss],” a red-eyed Williams said. “But I told the kids in the locker room I was sorry if I caused them a problem by talking about my desire to win a national title.

“If it put extra pressure on them, then I apologize.”

Rhode Island (24-8), led by guards Cuttino Mobley and Tyson Wheeler, was every bit as relaxed in advancing to only the second regional semifinal in school history.

Point guard Wheeler had 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Mobley had 27 points and five assists. Wheeler had five three-point baskets, Mobley three.

The Rams advance to play surprising 13th-seeded Valparaiso, which beat Florida State, 83-77, earlier in the day.

Coach Jim Harrick, who led UCLA to the national title in 1995 but was fired before the start of the 1996-97 season, is in his first season at Rhode Island.

Harrick is good friends with Valparaiso Coach Homer Drew. One of Drew’s assistants is his son, Jim Harrick Jr.

“There is a Heavenly Father and he was in the building this weekend, I’ll tell you that,” Harrick said, “because it couldn’t be more magical than it was.”

Pierce had 23 points and LaFrentz scored 22 and grabbed 14 rebounds. But they didn’t get enough help. Billy Thomas was two for 15 overall--including two for 13 from three-point range--and the Jayhawks shot only 43%.

Rhode Island shot 50%, something the previous 25 Kansas opponents had failed to do.

“I think you’ve got to give credit to Rhode Island for making a lot of big shots and keeping their poise,” Kansas forward T.J. Pugh said. “I don’t think it was a question of us losing our poise at all.”

The Jayhawks simply couldn’t stop Mobley and Wheeler. Whether they were slicing past man-to-man pressure or trying three-pointers over the Kansas zone, the tandem was too much.

“When we play as well together as we did tonight, it’s very difficult for opponents to hold us,” Mobley said. “I’m not trying to be high on ourselves, but that’s the advantage we have: to out-quick people.”

The loss ended a streak of five consecutive regional semifinal appearances for Kansas (35-4).

LaFrentz had a double-double by halftime, with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but Kansas’ lead was only 30-28 because of the play of Rhode Island’s guards. Mobley had nine points at the break. Preston Murphy came off the bench to score five, and Wheeler had four assists.

Thomas had returned to the lineup and played well in a first-round blowout of Prairie View. But he missed his first eight shots before making a three-point basket that gave Kansas a 39-32 lead with 17 minutes to play.

Rhode Island came back and the left-handed Wheeler tied the score at 45 with a three-pointer. Mobley made a three-point basket on the next trip, then Antonio Reynolds-Dean converted a three-point play to give the Rams a 51-45 lead with 12:29 to play.

Two more baskets by Mobley and consecutive three-point baskets by Wheeler helped give the Rams their biggest lead, 65-55, with 8:24 remaining.

Pierce scored three points and assisted on a basket in a 7-0 run that brought the Jayhawks within 65-62 before Mobley gave Rhode Island some room with a three-point basket from the top of the key with 5:11 to play.