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.
Coming off its championship in the Preseason NIT, Kansas (7-0) won its eighth straight game against another Top 10 team dating back to 1994. The Jayhawks also handed Arizona (4-2) its second loss to another top 10 team in less than a week, following an eight-point defeat to now top-ranked Duke in the championship game of the Maui Invitational.
But for the Jayhawks this wasn't about avenging last year's bitter three-point defeat to the Wildcats in the semifinals of the NCAA Southeast Regional in Birmingham, Ala. It was a loss that Williams called the most disappointing of his career.
Asked last week in New York how long it took to get over it, Williams said, "I'm still not."
While last night's victory won't take away any of the disappointment, it will give Williams and the Jayhawks some encouragement about the state of their team. After shaky performances against both Arizona State, which took Kansas to overtime, and Florida State, the Jayhawks spent most of the evening razing Arizona.
But that was before the Wildcats nearly sent Kansas asking another question -- how did they blow all but two points of a 20-point lead -- and contemplating its first defeat of the season headed into Sunday's game against Maryland at the MCI Center in Washington. Raef LaFrentz wouldn't let them answer that question.
After an ill-advised three-point shot by 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 a three by Jason Terry cut the deficit to one with 14.7 seconds left, Gregory redeemed himself. Gregory put in a rebound follow of his own missed layup with five seconds left to give the Jayhawks a three-point lead. Sophomore all-America Mike Bibby then had one last-ditch chance to send the game into overtime, but his 20-footer right before the buzzer rattled off the back of the rim and into LaFrentz's waiting hands.
LaFrentz, a senior All-America, emerged from an early-season shooting slump to lead Kansas with 32, while the team's other All-America, junior Paul Pierce, finished with 17. Bibby led the Wildcats with 22, but senior Miles Simon, the MVP of last year's Final Four, scored only 12.
The Jayhawks didn't come out looking like the nation's second-ranked team. They clanked their first seven shots and watched the Wildcats waltz down the lane for three easy layups in the first couple of minutes.
But Kansas started connecting and Arizona began self-destructing. With the help of some explosive moves by Pierce, Kansas went on an 11-2 run to take a 13-6 lead.
Leading 23-21, the Jayhawks scored eight straight points in a 16-4 run that ended with back-to-back threes by guards Billy Thomas and Ryan Robertson.
Kansas seemingly scored at will, and Arizona did little to get in the way. The Jayhawks finished the half with Pierce posting up Michael Dickerson in the lane and scoring on a short turnaround with 4.7 seconds left for a 47-32 lead, the biggest of the half.
Pierce and LaFrentz each finished the first half with 12 points for Kansas.
Pub Date: 12/03/97