Kansas dug too deep a hole. It became a grave. Jayhawks showed up with a 34-1 record. Unanimously ranked No. 1 in national polls. NCAA Tournament top seed. Runaway favorite in the Southeast Regional. College basketball's dominator. Hottest date at the Big Dance. The Team to Beat!
Arizona did it.
Kansas big men played excruciatingly small. Quick, explosive senior Jacque Vaughn was one-upped by Arizona freshman point guard Mike Bibby. With three minutes to go, Bob Dole's alma mater trailed by 13. But instead of last rites, the Jayhawks opted for a heroic late charge.
Paul Pierce, who plays third fiddle behind Raef LaFrentz and Vaughn among celebrity Jayhawks, became a 27-point catalyst. He bagged 11 rebounds. Arizona's fat lead got skinny.
Crowd was berserk. Wildcats got harried. Jayhawks made two quick steals. Ryan Robertson hit a three. So did Billy Thomas. Arizona's edge withered to a single point. Fabulous finish. College hoops on a high.
Kansas players knew something about Arizona. It was no secret among the Wildcats. Lute Olson-coached teams from Tucson had a reputation for disintegrating in NCAA Tournaments. Even though he has twice delivered Arizona to the Final Four.
Were they melting again?
Then, amid Friday night's smoke and fury, a child would lead the Wildcats. Mike Bibby in a bailout. A baby savior. Sparing the silver-haired Olson his most ignominious NCAA Tournament moment yet.
Bibby made the memorable plays to stem Arizona's bleeding. To bury mighty Kansas. An 18-year-old freshman with imposing basketball heritage, he scored 21, with 15 in the second half.
This time last year, Mike Bibby was a big fish in a teenage Phoenix pond. Most popular guy at Shadow Mountain High School. Since then, Henry Bibby's son has grown up in a hurry.
Against the heavily favored Jayhawks, playing before CBS-TV millions, the 6-foot-1 collegiate toddler hit a clutch basket in the lane to hold off Jayhawks who were desperately rallying. It kept getting closer, but Bibby produced one more time, making two free throws under pulsating pressure.
"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. Bibby played dead-even with Vaughn. Kansas almost caught us, but not quite."
Until the late Kansas eruption, which would become a stirring near-miss, the Jayhawks had melted like cheap candy in the Arizona heat. Renowned big guys from Kansas were playing Birmingham small.
Raef LaFrentz, a 6-foot-11 sensation, was efficiently stalked by quick Wildcat defenders, especially 6-8 junior Bennett Davison. Considered a sensational NBA candidate, LaFrentz was held to two first-half shots. He scored two points.
Raef would get 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, 6-11 partner of LaFrentz, had a rotten game. Zero points and five rebounds.
Arizona was just better. Doing the clutch stuff. Having the kid, Bibby, put a freshman finger in the dike just as seemed about to crack. Can this be, after repeated Olson shortfalls in the NCAA Tournament, despite making two Final Fours, a year of overachievement for Tucson's troops?
This was stunning evidence.
No element was more fascinating than the intriguing war of diverse point guards. Vaughn was good, but Bibby was better. Mike's father, Henry, was a UCLA standout who played nine seasons as an NBA point guard before becoming coach of one of Arizona's rivals, Southern California.
Oh, baby, how about that 18-year-old kitten for the Wildcats? Can he get Arizona a third chance in the Final Four? Might this be the unexpected March when a Lute Olson contingent finally makes it to the national championship game and even wins?