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Kansas turns to newfound toughness

How do you measure pride?

It could be in victories. Thirty-two certainly is a nice number.

It could be in championships. The Big 12 regular-season title carries weight.

It could be in prestige. A No. 1 seed is not without importance.

Or it could be something less tangible. A feeling of accomplishment, mixed with an equal dose of vindication.

For all that Kansas has accomplished, it would not have been complete without Friday night's 73-69 victory against Illinois.

Certainly, the game was meaningful simply because the Jayhawks now advance to the Midwest Region final against Oregon at 2:40 p.m. Sunday.

But it also was important for a group of players who, for the past year, carried the embarrassment of a loss to Illinois in the Sweet 16 last year.

It was not just the outcome that haunted the Jayhawks but, rather, the implication that followed last year's game. Illinois thoroughly humiliated the Jayhawks, pushing them around and leaving the impression Kansas was soft.

"That team came out and dominated us last year," Kansas junior Kirk Hinrich said. "We obviously needed to win this game, but we also came out with a sense that we had to get the job done this time."

The Jayhawks got the job done in precisely the way they failed last year. They beat the Illini on the boards, they outlasted them down the stretch.

"Their bench outscored us something like 8-million to two last year," Kansas coach Roy Williams said. "Our bench was big time tonight and that was a big difference. We didn't get that last year."

The Jayhawks needed production from the bench because Hinrich and Nick Collison were in foul trouble virtually from the start.

Freshmen Keith Langford and Wayne Simien finished with more playing time than either of the starting forwards. Along with point guard Aaron Miles, Kansas got 35 of its 73 points from freshmen.

"The three freshmen won the game for us," Collison said. "Me, (Jeff) Boschee and Kirk didn't play well and got into foul trouble early. If we had normal freshmen, we probably would have lost. But our freshmen have a lot of heart and a lot of courage and they carried us."

The Jayhawks led most of the game and appeared to be cruising toward an easy victory when they went up 69-59 with less than five minutes remaining.

But Kansas would score just one field goal the rest of the way and the Illini closed to within 71-69 with 1:15 remaining.

Illinois had possession twice in the final minute with a chance to tie, but Brian Cook and Frank Williams each missed shots. Langford clinched it for the Jayhawks with a pair of free throws with 2.8 seconds remaining.

Williams, who is expected to be a first-round pick in the NBA draft, was virtually nonexistent in the clutch. He scored two points in the final 16 minutes.

"He's about as good a player as I've ever coached against," Roy Williams said. "I never felt comfortable because I felt like he was going to make something happen for that team."

Kansas advanced to the final eight for the first time since 1996. The Jayhawks were No. 1 seeds in '97 and '98, but were upset by lower-seeded teams both seasons.

Kansas All-American Drew Gooden, who had 15 points and 13 rebounds, said he was emphatic about extending his college career before heading to the NBA.

He sat in the locker room late Friday night and smiled when he pointed to the coach's board. On the board, in the top left hand corner, someone had written the No. 8.

"That looks nice," Gooden said. "I've never seen that number before."