Kansas dug too deep a hole. It would be a grave. Jayhawks showed up with a 34-1 record. Ranked first in college basketball. NCAA Tournament first seed. The Team to Beat!
Arizona did it.
Friday night became a heart-fluttering, three-minute journey to destiny. Arizona was up 13. Kansas had the look of a 10-footed corpse. But there was no quitting. Jayhawks still had three minutes. They knew the Wildcats had a history of Big Dance stumbles under coach Lute Olson.
Jayhawks became like teeth-gritting soldiers, fighting nasty odds on a battlefield. Hurling three-point bazookas. Storming the beach. Achieving repeated steals against Wildcats who suddenly became careless and foolish. Arizona's lead was shrinking like a $4.98 shirt in a monsoon.
But, amid the smoke and fury, a child would lead the Wildcats. A baby savior. Sparing the silver-haired Olson his biggest NCAA Tournament embarrassment yet. Mike Bibby, an 18-year-old freshman point guard with imposing basketball heritage, became a heroic Arizona stabilizer.
Bibby would bury Kansas.
This time last year, Mike was a big fish in a small Phoenix pond at Shadow Mountain High School. Bibby has grown up in a hurry. Friday night, the 6-foot-1 collegiate toddler was playing before CBS-TV millions, hitting a clutch basket in the lane to hold off Jayhawks who were desperately rallying.
Kansas got a three-point bomb from Billy Thomas. Another by Ryan Robertson. Arizona's lead shriveled to one. Jayhawks had been pulling out remarkable victories in tight fights all season. But not this time, when it counted most. Bibby had astonishing cool, fending off Kansas by making two killer free throws.
"Mike's a remarkable youngster," Olson said. "But this was a fantastic effort against a great, great Kansas team by a whole busload of Wildcats. We neutralized their big fellows. Bibby played dead-even with Jacque Vaughn. Kansas also caught us. But not quite. That's all that counts.
Until that shortfalling spurt in the closing three minutes, the Jayhawks were melting like cheap candy in the Arizona heat. Renowned big guys from Kansas were playing Birmingham small.
Raef LaFrentz, a 6-foot-11 sensation, was effectively stalked by Wildcat defenders, especially 6-8 junior Bennett Davidson. Considered a sensational NBA candidate, LaFrentz was held to two first-half shots. He scored two points. He got cooking down the stretch, finishing with 14, but like so much of Friday night for the Jayhawks, it was too late and not enough.
Scot Pollard, a 6-11 partner of LaFrentz on the KU front line, had a rotten game. Zero points and five rebounds. Arizona's quickness befuddled Kansas. It would be the work of 6-7 sophomore Paul Pierce and 6-4 sub Thomas that lifted the Jayhawks into late contention.
Arizona was better. Doing the clutch stuff. Having the kid, Bibby, put a freshman finger in the dike just as it seemed about to crack. Can this be, after repeated Olson shortfalls in the NCAA Tournament, despite making two Final Fours, the year of overachievement for Wildcats from Tucson?
This was stunning evidence.
They should've used a starting gun Friday night instead of a tipoff. It was sure to be open-throttle basketball. Kansas was No. 2 in major-college scoring only to trigger-happy LIU-Brooklyn, with Arizona ranking third.
No element was more fascinating than the intriguing war of diverse point guards, celebrated Jayhawks senior Vaughn against Bibby, the Arizona freshman whose dad, Henry, was a UCLA standout who played nine NBA seasons before becoming coach of one of Arizona's rivals, Southern Cal.
Jacque couldn't handle the boyish wizard. Oh, baby, how about that 18-year-old kitten for the Wildcats? Bibby was, for most of Friday night, in dazzling control of the steering that guides Arizona.