SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Kansas forward Darnell Jackson admitted that, for a time, he and his teammates weren't exactly optimistic they would or even could stage a comeback against Memphis in Monday night's NCAA final.
"For a while, guys were kind of getting down," he said. "A lot of us thought the game was over."
Not hard to understand when you're down nine points with 2:12 left.
Not that the feeling lasted long.
"Coach (Bill) Self did a great job in the huddle keeping guys relaxed and calm," senior guard Russell Robinson said.
His message was simply to believe.
"We haven't played in that many close games this year, to be real candid with you," Self said. "Three of the times (in close games), we weren't able to pull it out. But there was something different (Monday). Even though it didn't look good, you just felt like all we needed was just a break and we could get right back in it."
The Jayhawks created that break when guard Sherron Collins followed a jumper by forward Darrell Arthur with a steal in the backcourt from guard Antonio Anderson and hit a 3-pointer, and Memphis' 60-51 lead was down to 60-56.
Thanks to the Tigers missing 4 of 5 free throws in the waning moments, Kansas tied it at 63 and forced overtime when the tournament's most outstanding player, Mario Chalmers, hit a 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left — then dominated the extra period for a 75-68 win.
"If Mario's was probably the biggest shot in Kansas basketball history, then Sherron's maybe was the second biggest shot. It was that big," Self said Tuesday morning.
That sequence gave the talented Jayhawks (37-3) a tangible reason to believe. Tenacity took over at that point.
"If you're in the Final Four, you've got a tough team," Self said. "But you don't come back from nine down with two (minutes) left unless you have a serious element of (toughness). I think we showed last night we've got a lot of fight in us."
He and the Jayhawks admitted that was forged in the most painful circumstances, after humbling losses in the first round of the 2005 and 2006 NCAA Tournaments (to No. 14 seed Bucknell 64-63, and to No. 13 Bradley 77-73, respectively).
And it was bolstered after last season's 68-55 loss to UCLA in a region final.
"This team was so hungry and wanting to win," said senior center Sasha Kaun, who played at Melbourne's Florida Air Academy. "Looking back to last year, we got to the Elite Eight and lost. We were happy to be there, but it left a bad taste in our mouths losing to UCLA. Going into this tournament, everyone had such a good focus on the tournament and it helped us a lot."
"We've seen the bottom; we've been through it all," echoed Robinson defiantly, referring as well to a number of personal tragedies that have struck the players, including deaths of family members.
So, what was a mere nine points in 2:12?
"To me, losing in the first round prepared them to win the national championship," Self said, "because I really believe everything that happens in basketball or coaching, you can spin that to help you."
"Coach Self is the biggest motivator I've ever been around," Arthur said. "When your spirits are low, he can lift them back up with one little speech. … He had us lifted this whole tournament."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or