CHICAGO -- Kansas coach Roy Williams and his players wouldn't dare ask the question, or even answer it. Yet it had to run through their minds and the minds of their loyal fans during last night's game against Arizona here at the United Center.
Where was this performance when they needed it -- or at least the first 30 minutes of it -- in the Sweet 16 of last year's NCAA tournament?
With a thrilling 90-87 victory over the defending national champion and fourth-ranked Wildcats in the Great Eight Basketball Classic, the second-ranked Jayhawks continued to enhance their reputation for being a great early-season team as well as a regular-season giant-killer of other top 10 teams.
The victory helped erase only a fraction of the disappointment from last year's defeat in the semifinals of the NCAA Southeast Regional, a game Williams has called the most bitter defeat of his career. More importantly, it erased some of the doubts that this year's team had raised with some shaky early-season performances.
Except for the last 10 minutes, when the Wildcats came out of their slumber to cut a 20-point deficit, 72-52, to one, 88-87, on Jason Terry's three-point shot with 14.7 seconds to go, Kansas (7-0) had spent much of the evening razing Arizona (4-2). The Jayhawks led by 15 at halftime and seemed in total control.
"I feel good about the way we played for 30 minutes," said Williams. "It's probably as good as we've played all season."
It's certainly as good as center Raef LaFrentz has played all season. The senior All-America, who had been in a shooting slump that saw him miss 28 of his past 43 shots, saved the Jayhawks from collapsing last night. LaFrentz finished with 32 points, including 20 in the second half.
Mike Bibby also prevented the Wildcats from getting blown out. But after leading Arizona's comeback with a team-high 22 points, Bibby's three-point shot before the buzzer hit the back rim before falling away.
It wasn't Bibby's performance that bothered Arizona coach Lute Olson as much as that of Final Four MVP Miles Simon, who finished with 12 points. "No question, the team that played the hardest for 40 minutes won the ballgame," said Olson. "It's been a problem for us the past two games. It's great that we have guys who are competitive enough to come back, but I'm concerned about the first 20 minutes. I'm concerned about the first five minutes."
In losing to another highly-ranked team for the second time in less than a week, the Wildcats followed nearly the same frustrating script they did against then fourth-ranked Duke in the final of the Maui Invitational. They wound up losing by eight, and losing their No. 1 ranking as well. They nearly completed their comeback last night. After an ill-advised three-point shot by Kansas freshman guard Kenny Gregory with 40 seconds left opened the door for the Wildcats -- it led to a pair of free throws by Bennett Davison, cutting the Kansas lead to 86-84 -- LaFrentz was fouled and made two free throws for the Jayhawks.
After Terry's three, Kansas point guard Ryan Robertson saved the Jayhawks from a costly turnover by doing a balancing act down the sideline as he retrieved a pass. Gregory then redeemed himself by following his own missed layup with five seconds left to give the Jayhawks a three-point lead before Bibby's missed three.
No matter how hard Williams tried to make his players forget about last year's three-point loss in Birmingham, Ala., it was still on their minds. Before, during and especially after last night's game. It was just another early-season victory over another top 10 team but it helped ease the pain.
"It's a matter of pride," said Robertson, when asked about the significance of last night's game. "They beat us last year in a big game and we beat them this year in a big game. It might not have been as big as last year, but we'll take it."
No. 2 Kansas 90, No. 4 Arizona 87
KANSAS -- Pugh 1-7 0-0 2, Pierce 8-16 1-3 17, LaFrentz 12-17 8-8 32, Robertson 2-6 0-0 5, Thomas 5-9 0-0 14, Chenowith 1-2 0-0 2, Gregory 6-10 0-0 12, McGrath 0-0 0-0 0, Bradford 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 38-71 9-11 90.
ARIZONA -- Davison 4-5 2-2 10, Dickerson 7-15 2-3 17, Bramlett 6-13 3-4 15, Bibby 9-19 0-0 22, Simon 3-12 2-2 10, Edgerson 0-1 2-2 2, Terry 3-10 0-0 8, Wessel 0-0 0-0 0, Tebbs 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 33-76 11-13 87.
Halftime--Kansas, 47-32. 3-point goals--Kansas 5-15 (Thomas 4-7, Robertson 1-3, Gregory 0-1, Pierce 0-2, Pugh 0-2), Arizona 10-28 (Bibby 4-10, Terry 2-7, Simon 2-9, Dickerson 1-1, Tebbs 1-1). Fouled out--Pugh. Rebounds--Kansas 34 (LaFrentz 8), Arizona 33 (Bramlett 10). Assists--Kansas 24 (Robertson 10), Arizona 18 (Bibby 6). Total fouls--Kansas 16, Arizona 11. A--19,161.
Pub Date: 12/03/97