For Mike Krzyzewski, Thursday’s night’s NCAA West Regional game at the Arrowhead Pond was one of those times where you just hate how right you were.
The legendary Duke coach has been saying for much of this season, including in news conferences before his Sweet 16 matchup with second-seeded Kansas, that Jayhawk center Nick Collison was the “best player in the country.”
So, in what became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Collison played the game of his life and Kansas beat third-seeded Duke, 69-65, in a college basketball game that defined why so many sports fans have become so addicted to this time of year.
While Collison’s performance was clearly the highlight -- with a career-high 33 points that included 14-of-22 shooting from the floor, as well as 19 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and only one foul, a charging violation -- the intensity and energy of both teams was spellbinding. For the entire 40 minutes, both teams threw their bodies around the court with the kind of abandon and desire seldom seen, even at this crucial time of the season.
“It was a sensational basketball game,” Kansas Coach Roy Williams said. “In this kind of game, you just feel fortunate when you are standing there at the end with more points on the scoreboard.
“I love the way we competed in the first half. Duke had a nine-point lead, but we kept playing, kept working. When you play Duke, no matter what, you get the feeling something is going to happen.”
Krzyzewski was equally enthusiastic.
“This was a great game, a big-time game, a game on a championship level,” he said. “Both teams played big, both put their bodies on the line all night.”
And about Collison, a smooth 6-foot-9 senior from Iowa Falls, Iowa, who is one of the few players he ever tried to recruit over the years who went elsewhere, Coach K said, simply, “I told you guys.”
Then he added, “His was one of the great performances you’ll ever have. He played like a champion, all night.”
Collison did it this time without significant scoring help from his fellow All-American sidekick, guard Kirk Hinrich, who continued to suffer through a tournament slump with a two-point night on one-of-nine shooting. Collison said that he knew early what he would have to do, when Duke started by surrounding him the first few times down the court.
“I knew I’d have to be aggressive,” he said. “I knew I had to keep moving. I knew at the start that they wanted me to play passive.”
Kansas’ victory set up another possible classic in Saturday’s West Regional final. The Jayhawks (28-7) will play Arizona, a team that they led by 22 points earlier this season at Lawrence, Kan., and ended up losing to, 91-74. Collison’s performance alone Thursday seemed to rule out a repeat rout.
The game came down to a wonderful flurry, like a cyclone on a Kansas prairie, in the final four minutes.
With his team leading, 61-57, Collison made a bad pass, trying to force the ball down low to Jeff Graves. But Graves, instead of watching the ball go out of bounds, dived at it and slapped it back in bounds, off the leg of a Duke player. Kansas set up its out-of-bounds play and, in a flash, Collison had a lob pass and a basket for 63-57.
Duke raced down court and Collison took a charge in the middle. Duke closed to 63-59, but then Collison hustled after the rebound of his own missed shot and put it back in for a 65-59 margin.
There were just over three minutes left, and Kansas was able to string it out from there.
Duke, as is its tendency, kept scrapping and digging and came up with a steal that cut it to 68-65, but when Aaron Miles made a free throw for Kansas with 16 seconds left for a 69-65 lead, it was over.
Over, that is, except for a final fitting moment.
Duke (26-7) tried a long shot and Collison snared the rebound, his 19th of the night, with :02 showing on the clock.
Duke star Dahntay Jones, who carried a big load with 23 points while star freshman J.J. Redick struggled with two-of-16 shooting and five points, summed up the night best when he said, “Collison played an amazing game. He just wouldn’t let his team lose.”