BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- There's going to be a party-crasher at the Final Four.
The run of upsets in the Southeast Regional continued last night, as Kansas, the biggest dog of them all, was sent to the porch by Arizona, 85-82. The irony in the Jayhawks' dismissal was that it was delivered by a program best known for failing to meet expectations in the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats were eliminated in the first round in three of the past five years, but there are skeletons back in the closet in Lawrence, Kan., too, and none will be harder to hide than this latest disappointment.
Down by 13 with three minutes to go and still behind by 10 with less than two minutes to play, top-ranked Kansas almost pulled off a miraculous comeback, with three three-pointers in the final 64 seconds. But when Raef LaFrentz's desperate three-pointer from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer, history was made that the Jayhawks won't want to recall.
This senior class has won more games than any in Kansas history, but it departs unfulfilled, as Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard, Jerod Haase and company are the first since the class that arrived in 1981 to come through Lawrence without a trip to the Final Four.
"I told them that life isn't always fair," coach Roy Williams said through watery eyes. "We had a dream season, but we didn't reach our final dream. I'm the luckiest coach in America. Monday night [March 30] there's going to be a coach cutting down a net. It won't be us, but none of those guys is as lucky as Roy Williams is."
The Jayhawks, everybody's office pool favorite, became the only No. 1 seed not to reach the Elite Eight.
Last year, Kansas was a No. 2 seed when it lost to Syracuse in the West final. Two years ago, the Jayhawks were a No. 1 when they got bounced by Virginia in the Sweet 16 in the Midwest.
Kansas (34-2) didn't lose this game, fourth-seeded Arizona (22-9) won it.
Oh, the Jayhawks have some excuses, but other than Haase's hand injury, all the alibis were in place because of what the Wildcats did. Sophomore forward Paul Pierce was the only Jayhawk on top of his offensive game as he had a game-high 27 points. Pollard and Vaughn were hampered by foul trouble, and All-American La- Frentz never got in the flow at the offensive end.
The Wildcats finished the regular season with a pair of Pac-10 losses in the Bay Area, and they weren't overly impressive in the sub-regional, but Olson's team, which doesn't use a senior unless it's a blowout, looked like the veteran outfit last night.
Junior forward Mike Dickerson turned in 20 points and a solid defensive job on Vaughn, who had eight assists but five turnovers. Freshman guard Mike Bibby crammed 15 of his 21 points into the second half. Junior guard Miles Simon had 17, and sophomore center A. J. Bramlett handled Pollard and had a game-high 12 rebounds.
When it was over, the Wildcats celebrated at midcourt and a few players jumped atop the press table to acknowledge their contingent of fans at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.
"The thing I loved all week long was their attitude," Olson said. "It was like, 'You think we're in awe of them? We're not in awe of anybody.' "
The Wildcats had a 75-62 lead with 3: 30 left on Bibby's three-pointer from the right corner, then did just enough to advance to tomorrow's Southeast championship against Providence.
"Considering the pressure on Kansas, it was magnificent the way they shot down the stretch," Olson said. "We were hanging on by our fingernails."
Pressure defense and two three-pointers by Billy Thomas lifted Kansas in the final minute, and Ryan Robertson's bomb got them within 83-82 with 21.1 seconds left. Bibby coolly hit two free throws with 18.2 seconds left, and the Jayhawks had three attempts at a three-pointer on their final possession, the last being La- Frentz's after he dribbled out after an offensive rebound.
"We never felt panicked or rushed out there," said Simon, who hit seven of his 12 shots, including a big three-pointer late. "We were in control of the game, we had the lead and it was our game to lose. We were able to sustain it."
Kansas had been down, but not like this before. The Jayhawks -- who spent the final 15 weeks of the regular season as No. 1 -- overcame sizable deficits in earlier wins over Cincinnati, Texas Tech and Connecticut, but they couldn't overcome their shooting lapses and the Wildcats' ability to get the ball inside.
The Jayhawks lofted 25 three-pointers, while the Wildcats kept taking it to the basket. The highlights? Dickerson beat the press with an outlet to Bramlett, Bibby floated through the lane for a short runner, and Simon fought off Robertson for a put-back.
"We made a living at the free-throw line this year," Williams said. "Arizona made 17 and we made eight, and that tells you something about this game."
The Wildcats forced 13 turnovers in the first half, and restricted the Jayhawks to just a few good looks in the first 10 minutes of the second, when Kansas made six of its 20 field-goal attempts.
Kansas was No. 2 in the nation in scoring and Arizona was No. 3, and neither got to that level just by running the weave. The quick hands, anticipation and pressure defense that produce easy baskets were evident early, as there were eight turnovers in the first two minutes alone.
The Jayhawks were guilty of six turnovers in the first 2: 35, and their last possession of the half resulted in their 13th giveaway, as Dickerson's strip of Vaughn on an isolation in the lane preserved a 38-36 lead for the Wildcats.
A year ago, Kansas beat Arizona in the Sweet 16, but now the Wildcats are still playing.
"This was definitely a tough loss," Pierce said. "We worked hard FTC all season long to get here. Unfortunately, we fell short. But we're not going to hold our heads down."
With that, Pierce hung his head.
Pub Date: 3/22/97