Friday, December 6, 1996
Kansas loss will gnaw at Bearcats

The Cincinnati Enquirer

CHICAGO - Danny Fortson leaves The City of the Big Shoulders having learned that his pair are not quite wide enough.

The University of Cincinnati's fine forward can not carry the Bearcats on his back. Not all by himself. Not for a whole game. Not against elite competition. Not Wednesday night, anyway.

Fortson cut a powerful, productive figure beneath the basket at the United Center Wednesday night, but he was ultimately outnumbered. Top-ranked Kansas overcame a 16-point deficit to win a 72-65 battle of attrition from the Bearcats.

The fault was not Fortson's. He scored 25 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and was about as easily budged as a brontosaurus. When time was called with 4:19 remaining in the first half, Fortson had outscored the nation's No.1 team all by his lonesome, 14-13.

Kansas is known for its flat, tedious topography, but its basketball team is conspicuous for its altitude. In Scot Pollard and Raef LaFrentz, Jayhawk coach Roy Williams has two 6-foot-11 players who can maneuver and muscle as well as scrape the sky.

For 20 minutes, though, the 6-foot-7 Fortson made them seem like stumblebums. He sliced between them and shot over them as if maneuvering around statues. Fortson was easily the best player on the floor, and every bit the All-America.

Falter without Fortson

But as much as he would contribute to the Bearcat cause, there wasn't enough of Fortson to go around. When he left the game after picking up his third foul with 18:35 remaining in the second half, UC held a 37-23 lead.

In his absence, Kansas outscored UC, 18-2. The game had changed for good.

''It was sickening to watch,'' Fortson said.

''We can't rebound the ball if he's not on the floor,'' UC coach Bob Huggins said of his star. ''Not against those people ... And we're not going to be able to throw it to Danny on every possession and expect to win.''

The Jayhawks overwhelmed UC in the second half, dominating both backboards and daring UC's perimeter shooters to launch over their zone defense.

KU coach Roy Williams operated on the premise that the Bearcats were a one-man team in the offensive end, and none of Fortson's colleagues were able to respond to the challenge.

UC was four-for-24 from three-point range, and threw up enough bricks for a three-bedroom house. Darnell Burton, presumably UC's best outside shooter, was two-for-17 from the field. Damon Flint, was three-for-14, and missed eight of nine three-pointers.

Their inaccuracy allowed Kansas to double and triple-team Fortson inside. When Fortson fouled out with 45 seconds to play, he slammed his fist on the floor in frustration.

A bad memory

This was just another made-for-TV spectacular - two highly ranked teams three months before rankings really matter - and yet the Bearcats had to feel as though they had squandered an extraordinary opportunity. In the final minute of play, Huggins allowed a heckler far enough under his skin to invite him to continue their conversation at closer range.

It is not every day that a college basketball team gets the nation's No.1 team beneath its boot heel, only to watch them wriggle free. This was the kind of game that will gnaw at the Bearcats for weeks to come.

In the great scheme of things - even in the little scheme of things - it doesn't matter all that much. Kansas played without its splendid point guard, Jacque Vaughn, and the Bearcats lacked the defensive cohesion they usually acquire in the second half of the season. These two teams should make a more compelling match in March.

This was of small solace Wednesday night. The Bearcats had a chance to beat the nation's top-ranked team on a neutral court before a national television audience, and they didn't get it done.

Compared to this, that little lapse against Xavier was relatively painless.