Sunday, March 30, 2003

Kansas 78, Arizona 75


Drumbeat for Williams' first title begins

By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

[img]
Kansas players celebrate their 78-75 win over Arizona.
(AP photo)
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ANAHEIM, Calif. - Fate couldn't resist one more twirl. And so there was Kansas coach Roy Williams just before halftime, spinning and sputtering, twisting and turning, so enraged by a late traveling call against his team that he looked like a puppet being jerked around on a string.

But by the end of this one, at least, it turned out to be worth all the torment. The man who's found himself on the wrong end of so many memorable NCAA tournament decisions finished this Saturday night on the right one.

Kansas outlasted Arizona 78-75 in another tournament classic to claim the West Regional final. No sooner had Williams finished cutting down the nets than the drumbeat to get him that elusive first national championship began. First in line was Arizona coach Lute Olson, a rival and close pal.

"I'll tell you what," said Olson, who won his title in 1997, "no one in this country has done a better job, and if there's anybody who deserves the opportunity, it's Roy Williams."

The genuine affection between the two was clear a moment later, when Williams described their postgame conversation.

"I told him afterward, I didn't know what I could say to him."

Fortunately, Williams didn't have the same problem with his team just before the game.

"I told the kids that all season, Arizona and Kentucky had been the two best teams in the country, but they just had to be the best team for the next 2 1/2 hours."

That the Jayhawks did that with just eight points from Nick Collison made it all the more remarkable.

Two nights earlier, while sidekick Kirk Hinrich was shooting a miserable 1-for-9 from the floor, Collison scored 33 points and grabbed 19 rebounds and almost single-handedly lifted Kansas over Notre Dame. But Arizona saw that performance, too, and effectively kept the ball out of Collison's hands by playing zone defense from tipoff to final buzzer.

That left Williams to adapt his scheme and Hinrich to make up the difference. The coach who learned his chops under Dean Smith at North Carolina didn't disappoint. Neither did the slim, mop-haired guard whose father coached him from third grade through high school.

Williams deftly hid his lack of depth with a handful of substitution hunches. And he gambled late by holding out Collison, who had four fouls, for nearly five minutes and bringing him back with 3:34 left.

But none of it would have paid off without Hinrich. He took 23 shots, 17 from beyond the 3-point arc and made six of those to finish with 28 points. Like Collison, Hinrich is a senior who saw the window of opportunity closing not just on his chances for a title, but for Williams', too.

"We definitely wanted to win it for coach, because he's the one who gets a lot of unfair criticism when things don't go well," Hinrich said.

With a Final Four match against Marquette in the offing, Collison reminded Kansas fans that most of those nights when the Jayhawks haven't lived up to their pedigree had more to do with how the players on the floor performed and not the game plan Williams handed them.

"He really earned his money this year," Collison said, and Saturday night reminded everybody why once more.

In his 15 seasons at Kansas, Williams has had the Jayhawks near the top of the rankings every year. So even though he hasn't won a national championship himself, he's been in many of the big-stakes games college basketball offers every season.

That's one reason why Williams' name his been linked to the vacancy at UCLA and tied to rumors at his alma mater, where current North Carolina coach Matt Doherty is said to be facing a player revolution and trying to hang onto his job.

But Williams has more pressing business for the moment.

By beating Duke in the regional semifinal Thursday, he got back at coach Mike Krzyzewski for a second-round NCAA tournament loss two seasons ago, and more painful still, a loss in the 1991 national championship game.

And this past January, Olson and his Wildcats came to Kansas and snapped the Jayhawks' 25-game home winning streak. Kansas led by 20 with five minutes left in the first half and somehow wound up losing by 17.

Maybe that memory had something to do with the tirade Williams threw Saturday night. This time, his team built a 16-point lead with 4 1/2 minutes left in the opening period, only to begin squandering it again. In the midst of a 13-0 Arizona run, Hinrich committed a traveling violation that wasn't called immediately by official Kerry Sitton, who was close by. Instead, it was called a few seconds later by official Tony Greene from the other side of the court.

Williams began screaming at Sitton, bouncing up and down, then racing the length of the bench. He pulled off his suitcoat, threw it aside, walked to the end of the bench and folded his arms, glowering at Sitton as the Arizona run continued. By halftime, the Wildcats were within 38-35.

"I challenged our team in the locker room," Williams said. "I told them to go back on the attack, that the team out there wasn't going to roll over and play dead."

He was right on both counts.

Arizona didn't roll over, but Kansas never quit attacking, either. Maybe because they were playing for a man who knows what it's like to get knocked down, pick himself up off the floor and reach one more time for the prize that's always exceeded his grasp.

Williams' ways

Kansas' tournament history under Roy Williams:

1990 - beat Robert Morris 79-71; lost to UCLA 71-70.

1991 - beat New Orleans 55-49; beat Pittsburgh 77-66; beat Indiana 83-65; beat Arkansas 93-81; beat North Carolina 79-73; lost to Duke 72-65. NCAA runner-up.

1992 - beat Howard U. 100-67; lost to Texas-El Paso 66-60.

1993 - beat Ball State 94-72; beat Brigham Young 90-76; beat California 93-76; beat Indiana 83-77; lost to North Carolina 78-68. Final Four.

1994 - beat Tennessee-Chattanooga 102-73; beat Wake Forest 69-58; lost to Purdue 83-78.

1995 - beat Colgate 82-68; beat Western Kentucky 75-70; lost to Virginia 67-58.

1996 - beat South Carolina State 92-54; beat Santa Clara 76-51; beat Arizona 83-80; lost to Syracuse 60-57.

1997 - beat Jackson State 78-64; beat Purdue 75-61; lost to Arizona 85-82.

1998 - beat Prairie View 110-52; lost to Rhode Island 80-75.

1999 - beat Evansville 95-74; lost to Kentucky 92-88, OT.

2000 - beat DePaul 81-77, OT; lost to Duke 69-64.

2001 - beat Cal State Northridge 99-75; beat Syracuse 87-58; lost to Illinois 80-64.

2002 - beat Holy Cross 70-59; beat Stanford 86-63; beat Illinois 73-69; beat Oregon 104-86; lost to Maryland 97-88. Final Four.

2003 - beat Utah State 64-61; beat Arizona State 108-76; beat Duke 69-65; beat Arizona 78-75.

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Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org




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