DENVER -- The long road back to Lawrence is paved with bricks for the Kansas Jayhawks. So is the one Syracuse is taking to this season's Final Four, but the Orangemen and their much maligned coach, Jim Boeheim, couldn't care less.
So what if Syracuse forward Todd Burgan clanked three straight free throws in a matter of 17 seconds and gave Kansas some hope down the stretch? So what if guard Jason Cipolla missed one of two with a little more than 12 seconds left to give Jacque Vaughn a chance to send yesterday's NCAA West Regional final into overtime?
It didn't matter.
The fourth-seeded Orangemen overcame their own shooting woes and Boeheim's reputation for not being able to win big games to upset second-seeded Kansas, 60-57, at McNichols Arena. How Syracuse (28-8) advanced to its first Final Four in nine years and the third in school history was strictly a matter of interpretation.
Most thought it was the frigid shooting of the Jayhawks (29-5), who missed 19 of their last 22 shots and 21 of 25 three-pointers overall, including Vaughn's with three seconds to go. A few, Boeheim in particular, said it was his team's 2-3 zone defense that helped end the Big East's six-year Final Four drought and sent the Orangemen into Saturday's first semifinal game against Mississippi State.
"We missed a lot of shots closer to the basket than Kansas did," said Boeheim, whose Orangemen made 20 of 56 shots from the field, to go along with 17 of 28 from the free-throw line. "These kids won the game. They won the game. We missed four straight free throws at the end of the game, and won the game. We won the game."
But it was hard to overlook how cold the Jayhawks became midway through the second half. After hitting nine of its first 12 shots coming out of halftime, after turning a 35-26 halftime deficit into a 46-42 lead with 13: 15 remaining, Kansas went into the kind of shooting funk that can reduce a grown man to tears.
Which, in the case of coach Roy Williams, it did.
"It's a tough moment in coaching when you go in the locker room and you feel so inadequate because there is nothing you can say that can ease what happened," said Williams, red-eyed and choking on his words.
What happened was this: Kansas kept taking, and missing, the kind of shots that over-40 hackers make regularly during lunchtime games at the local Y. Wide-open shots. Money-in-the-bank shots. Syracuse's defense was more psychological, having put the fear in the Jayhawks that they couldn't score inside.
Kansas missed seven straight as Syracuse went on a 9-0 run to take a 51-46 lead. Then after scoring on a layup by center Scot Pollard and lob dunk by forward B. J. Williams to pull within a point, the Jayhawks missed eight straight, as the Orangemen stretched their lead back to 59-54. Kansas also made two turnovers, including one when reserve guard Billy Thomas blew the end of a two-on-none fast break by losing the ball off his fingers right at the basket.
"That might have been the sign that we were going to win," Boeheim said.
The Orangemen needed some kind of sign. All-American John Wallace, dominant down the stretch in a 30-point performance against Georgia in Friday's Sweet 16 overtime victory, had missed a bunch of shots himself during a 5-for-16 afternoon. It seemed only fitting that he was still named the regional's most valuable player.
But as bad as Syracuse played at times, Kansas was worse. Senior guard Jerod Haase, whose three-pointer beat Arizona in the regional semifinals, returned to his season-long slump and missed all nine shots he took, eight of them three-pointers. Starting forwards Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz combined to miss 11 of 17 shots. The bench was a miserable 3-for-17. The Jayhawks, who shot 22 of 64 overall, also made 19 turnovers, three more than the Orangemen.
As Wallace would say: "The good thing is, every time we made a mistake, they seemed to come back and do us a favor."
Still, Vaughn gave Kansas a chance when he hit a 23-footer from the wing with 13.3 seconds left to pull the Jayhawks within 59-57. It was the only field goal his team scored in the final 7 1/2 minutes. But Wallace, whose inbounds passes turned out to be as key as his big shots this weekend, found Cipolla racing downcourt. He was fouled by Vaughn and made the second of two free throws.
There were 12.5 seconds to go as Vaughn raced upcourt, and tried to get off a similar three to the previous possession. But the Syracuse defense tightened, and the Kansas point guard fed Pierce along the baseline. He couldn't get a shot off and passed back to Vaughn, whose 21-footer in traffic hit the back rim. The ball ricocheted into the corner as the buzzer sounded.
Wallace took the ball and bounced it 20 feet in the air.
"I definitely did get a good look," said Vaughn, whose eight-for-12 shooting and 21 often-acrobatic points kept the Jayhawks in the game. "It just didn't go in."
Someone asked Wallace if it was more the Jayhawks' losing than the Orangemen's winning. "We don't care what they say," said Wallace. "The bottom line is that we won the game. . . . To even make that statement is ridiculous."
Boeheim looked over at Wallace and laughed.
"You took the words right out of my mouth," he said.
Pub Date: 3/25/96