Taking It From the Top
The last shot belonged to Jason Gardner.
Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich knew it as well as anybody in the Arizona huddle and probably half the crowd in the Arrowhead Pond on Saturday.
Gardner, the Arizona point guard who had made so many clutch shots before, needed one more to keep his career from ending, but Hinrich was ready.
He blocked Gardner’s first three-point attempt with only moments left in the West Regional final, then scrambled back to contest the second just before the buzzer.
When it bounded off the rim, Kansas was bound for the Final Four.
Rock, shock, Jayhawks.
With a 78-75 victory over top-seeded Arizona, second-seeded Kansas won the latest pell-mell scramble of a game between the two teams judged the nation’s best when the season began.
Now only the Jayhawks (29-7) are left standing, headed to the Final Four for the second year in a row.
Arizona (28-4), the No. 1 team in 13 of 19 Associated Press polls this season, is through.
“I mean, it’s already started to sink in,” senior forward Luke Walton said not long after he doubled over on the court, hands on his knees, after the final play.
“I know this was my last time in the locker room, my last game in an Arizona uniform, the last time with the coaches.
“The hardest part of everything is knowing it’s all over. We’re not going to have another shot.”
Kansas does. The Jayhawks will face Marquette in a semifinal game Saturday in New Orleans in hopes of advancing to the title game, where they might finally give Coach Roy Williams his first NCAA title in his fourth trip to the Final Four.
It seemed impossible this game could match the monumental swings of the game between these teams in January, but it did.
In that game, Kansas took a 20-point lead in the first half only to lose by 17 in a ferocious Arizona comeback.
This time, Kansas roared to a 16-point lead in the first half, only to watch Arizona storm back again and again.
“I told our kids that team was good enough they weren’t going to roll over and play dead,” Williams said. “They were going to keep coming back.”
They did, scoring the final 13 points of the first half to cut the lead to three, only to fall prey to an 11-0 Kansas run early in the second. Then the Wildcats stormed back with another 11-0 run of their own with consecutive three-pointers by Gardner, Walton and Gardner again, along with two free throws.
Time and again, Hinrich was the player who pulled Kansas back ahead.
After a woeful one-for-nine shooting performance in a semifinal victory over Duke, Hinrich scored 28 points in the final, making 10 of 23 shots and six of an astounding 17 three-point attempts as well as his one huge final defensive play.
Kansas needed all of it, with Arizona putting the clamps on forward Nick Collison, holding him to eight points with a 1-3-1 zone two days after he scored a career-high 33 against Duke.
But one of the differences between this game and Arizona’s January victory was the Wildcats didn’t get the same performance from sophomore guard Salim Stoudamire, who scored 32 points against Kansas in the first game.
This time, slowed by a hip pointer early in the game, Stoudamire finished with only four points in 21 minutes, and he played only eight minutes in the second half.
“To tell the truth, I could hardly move,” Stoudamire said.
But at least part of the reason for his limited playing time was Coach Lute Olson’s decision, pure and simple, and it wasn’t the first time this season he has benched Stoudamire for long stretches, sometimes, he said, for not making the eye contact he demands.
This time, “It was a case where I thought Hassan [Adams] and Andre [Iguodala] obviously came off the bench aggressively and got us back in the game,” Olson said. “We were in trouble until those guys came in and ignited us. There are some games when some guys play a whole lot better than somebody else and sometimes you need to go with them.”
Stoudamire didn’t contradict Olson.
“Instead of using [the injury] as motivation to get tougher, I kind of let it bother me,” he said. “Coach felt Hassan and Andre were playing terrific and they were.”
As long as Arizona made it a half-court game, the Wildcats were all right.
But Kansas dizzied Arizona with its fastbreak, outscoring the Wildcats on the run, 22-2, and creating 29 points off 19 Arizona turnovers
“Kansas did a great job of really pushing the ball down our throat,” Olson said.
Still, it was nip-and-tuck for the intense final 12 minutes of the game, with neither team leading by more than four.
Gardner scored 23 points to lead the Wildcats and Walton added 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
But Kansas had the unsung hero in forward Jeff Graves, who scored 13 points on six-of-six shooting and added a career-high 15 rebounds.
Graves turned a one-point Kansas lead into three with 3:12 remaining when he tipped in Hinrich’s missed three-pointer.
Later, Kansas guard Keith Langford made it three again when he drove the lane for a twisting lay-in with 50 seconds left for a 78-75 lead.
Walton gave up one Arizona opportunity when he drove the lane in the final minute and Langford took a charge.
“I have to live with it. It happened,” Walton said. “I probably should have taken the three, down three.”
Arizona forced a held ball on Kansas’ next possession, but the arrow was with Kansas and Collison missed a shot as the shot clock wound down.
With 7.1 seconds left in the season, Arizona used two timeouts to set up a final play.
Even though Gardner only recently shook off a slump that saw him go 0 for 12 from three-point range in a loss to UCLA, he was the player who was going to take the shot.
“I knew they needed a three, and when he was coming down, I expected him to get a ball screen because I figured he was going to be the guy to take the shot,” Hinrich said. “When it didn’t come and he started getting into his range, I knew he was going to shoot it.
“I was able to get a hand up, and my height [6 feet 3 to Gardner’s 5-10] helped me get a piece of it, and I was able to get back and make the second one difficult.”
Gardner had one last chance. “I thought I had a good look, but it just went off the back of the iron, the back of the rim,” he said.
Like Arizona’s season, it was close, but not close enough.