Kansas meets test of wild West, 78-75


ANAHEIM, Calif. - Kansas wasn't supposed to make it through a West Regional bracket that was supposedly filled with more powerful teams and some perilous situations. The Jayhawks came here to the Arrowhead Pond as an afterthought, shrouded by Duke's mystique and Arizona's magnificence.

Though second-seeded and with a pedigree of its own, Kansas was overlooked.

The Jayhawks, though, were certainly not overmatched.

After taking care of the third-seeded Blue Devils in Thursday's semifinals, Kansas cushioned itself with a 16-point lead in the first half and a 14-point lead in the second half, withstanding furious runs by the top-seeded Wildcats on each occasion yesterday to win, 78-75, and advance to the Final Four for the second straight year.

"I told our guys in the locker room that Arizona and Kentucky have been the best teams in the country all season, but you don't have to be the best team in the country the whole season, you only have to be the best team the next 2 1/2 hours," said Kansas coach Roy Williams. "The whole difference in the game was our mind-set."

Senior guard Kirk Hinrich, who promised to make up for a 1-for-9 shooting performance against Duke, did more than that. He finished with a game-high 28 points, many of them with fellow senior Nick Collison on the bench in foul trouble, and blocked one of two three-point shots to tie by Arizona's Jason Gardner in the waning seconds.

When Gardner's second attempt from the left wing bounced high off the back of the rim, Kansas forward Jeff Graves grabbed the rebound and flung the ball high in the air.

It set off a wild celebration by the Jayhawks, some of whom lifted Hinrich on their shoulders. It was only fitting, since Hinrich had carried them on his.

"I knew against Duke that I wasn't aggressive," said Hinrich, who also had five assists and five rebounds. "I got frustrated early and rushed my shots. If I was going to go down, I was to go down firing."

Said Gardner, who led the Wildcats with 23 points, "He stepped up for his team. He's one of the best shooting guards in the country. He kept his team in the game today and made the plays when they needed him to."

The victory was redemption in a number of ways for Kansas. The players redeemed themselves after blowing a 20-point lead to the Wildcats in a January game in Lawrence and losing by 17. With the program's 1,800th victory, Williams got a chance to redeem himself, after his top-seeded Jayhawks lost to fourth-seeded Arizona in the regional finals.

Now, Kansas (29-7) will get an opportunity to erase the memory of last year's semifinal loss to Maryland in Atlanta. The Jayhawks will meet Marquette, which earlier in the day upset the tournament's other favorite, Kentucky, in the Midwest Regional final in Minneapolis.

The defeat denied Arizona (28-4) a second Final Four trip in the past three years and Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson his 500th victory with the Wildcats.

"Kansas played extremely hard," said Olson, who was also denied a fifth trip to the Final Four with the Wildcats and the sixth of his coaching career. "They did a great job. They really pushed it down our throats and took advantage of the mistake we made with 29 points off [19] turnovers. That's a credit to the effort they put in."

The final sequence was also a fitting conclusion to a wild game, with each team making runs that seemed to take the life out of the other. Kansas built a 38-22 lead, only to see Arizona score the last 13 points of the first half. The Jayhawks built their lead back to 56-42 early in the second half, before the Wildcats ran off 16 straight points.

After a pair of free throws by Gardner gave Arizona its first lead since Channing Frye's basket on the opening possession, there were four ties and nine lead changes, the last coming on a free throw by Kansas forward Keith Langford with 4:31 to go that put the Jayhawks ahead, 70-69.

In a game marred by questionable calls from the officials, one during the first half that caused Williams to rip off his suit jacket and fling it to one of his team's managers, a decisive moment came when Arizona's Hassan Adams was called for going over the back of Kansas guard Aaron Miles on a long rebound off a Hinrich missed three-pointer.

Miles made a pair of free throws that helped the Jayhawks open a 74-70 lead with 2:22 remaining.

Collison, brilliant against Duke with a career-high 33 points and 19 rebounds, sat out key minutes down the stretch with four fouls. But he made his second basket of the game with 1:27 left to give Kansas a 76-73 lead.

The last questionable call came after Langford, who made a drive to put Kansas ahead 78-75 with 51 seconds to go, drew a charge on Luke Walton (18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists). Langford appeared to have taken a flop.

Olson refused to blame the officiating for his team's defeat.

"I thought the outcome of the game had nothing to do with the officiating," said Olson. "The game was decided by the players and that's the way it should be."

Ultimately, it was decided by Hinrich, at both ends.

Williams was not surprised.

"If you go back and look at our games, he had three or four poor games and the next one he was sensational," said Williams, heading for his fourth Final Four. "He was sensational tonight."

So were the Jayhawks, who are overlooked no more.

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