ST. LOUIS -- Environmentalists, beware. The Kansa Jayhawks are headed back to another city on the banks of the Mississippi, full of spit and more than a little polish.
The second-seeded Jayhawks were not only more superstitious
than the top-ranked, top-seeded Hoosiers, they were also superior. Buoyed by a deeper bench and a bigger front line, Kansas beat Indiana, 83-77, at the St. Louis Arena.
The victory enabled Kansas (29-6), a second-round loser last year, to advance to next week's Final Four in New Orleans. It marks the second trip in the past three years for the Jayhawks -- the fourth since 1986 -- and the second in Williams' five years as coach.
"The Mississippi River trick worked again," said Williams, who learned it as an assistant at North Carolina 11 years, when the Tar Heels beat Georgetown for the NCAA championship. "Thank goodness that the Mississippi runs all the way down to New Orleans."
There was a little more than good luck that went into last night's victory. It took a tenacious defense that fought through Indiana's screens to slow down All-American Calbert Cheaney at key points. It took a balanced offense that put five players in double figures for the fourth straight time in this year's tournament.
And it took another tradition Williams borrowed from North Carolina -- that old Dean Smith standby called senior leadership -- to hold off one last comeback by the Hoosiers, who cut a nine-point deficit to 76-73 with 1:25 remaining.
"I really thought, without any question, that Kansas was the better team," said Indiana coach Bob Knight, whose team had lost to the Jayhawks in early December in Indianapolis. "Their defense was exceptional, especially up top. We had a tough time getting into our offense."
Indiana overcame a pair of eight-point deficits in the first half to trail by four at halftime. It fell behind by eight again early in the second half before coming back to take a 48-46 lead with 14:13 remaining.
But trailing 50-48, the Jayhawks ran off 10 straight points to build their lead back to eight. Shooting 68.2 percent in the second half, they never looked back. When Hoosier point guard Greg Graham picked up his fourth personal with 10:03 to play and his team down seven, Indiana could never get close enough.
"From a standpoint of our team, it [fourth foul] had a major impact," said Graham, who scored a team-high 23. "I really couldn't do the things I wanted to do defensively."
The defeat prevented Indiana (31-4) from returning to the Final Four for the second straight year and denied Knight a chance at a fourth national championship. It also left one nagging question: what would have happened had sophomore forward Alan Henderson not suffered a serious knee injury last month.
Henderson made only a token three-minute appearance against the Jayhawks, who used their size and strength inside to push the Hoosiers around on offense and bully them on defense. Despite 22 points and nine rebounds by Cheaney, Indiana's frontcourt was badly outplayed.
"We came out and physically wore them down inside," said junior forward Richard Scott, who led the Jayhawks with 16 points.
Said Cheaney: "It was an attitude. It was their toughness that beat us."
That was evident after Indiana made its final run. When a drive by Graham cut the Kansas lead to three, the pro-Indiana crowd of 17,883 roared its approval. In a matter of seconds, only the Jayhawks fans were left cheering.
First, Rex Walters broke the press and fed Adonis Jordan for a layup with 1:18 to go. Then, Eric Pauley blocked Cheaney's rebound follow of his own missed three-pointer, leading to a pair of free throws by Walters. Finally, after Todd Leary made two of three free throws for the Hoosiers, Walters closed the door with a free throw for an 83-75 lead.
Despite his insistence to the contrary, Williams is getting a reputation for being a legend killer. Last night's win was his third straight without a defeat to Knight, the second time in an NCAA tournament game. (The first came in the Sweet 16 in Charlotte, N.C., in 1991). He might also have another chance to meet -- and beat -- his mentor.
Kansas will play the winner of today's East Regional final between North Carolina and Cincinnati next Saturday at the Superdome. The Jayhawks beat the Tar Heels in the 1991 semifinals at the Hoosier Dome before losing to Duke.
"Roy Williams is no genius. I can assure you of that," he said. "When you play those kind of teams, like Indiana or North Carolina, you realize that you have to elevate your game and play as close to your potential as you possibly can."
Being here certainly didn't hurt.
After all, it's spitting distance from the Mississippi.