Miracle Mario Delivers

(Steve Puppe photo)

SAN ANTONIO — It was the shot heard around the college basketball world Monday night. And it was also the shot that will be forever etched in Jayhawk lore.

Mario Chalmers was known as Super Mario when he arrived at Kansas in 2005. But after his heroics in KU’s heart-stopping 75-68 overtime victory over Memphis in the national championship game, it’s time for a new nickname.

How about Miracle Mario?

Chalmers’ dramatic three-pointer from the top of the key with two seconds left in regulation capped off an incredible nine-point comeback with 2:12 remaining and sent the Jayhawks into overtime. That gave KU much-needed momentum in the extra period, where the ‘Hawks never trailed in capturing their first national championship since Danny and the Miracles cut down the nets 20 years ago in Kansas City.

“It will probably be the biggest shot in Kansas history,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Just remarkable that a guy can have that much poise when the pressure’s on like that.”

After Memphis freshman star Derrick Rose made a free throw to give the Tigers a 63-60 lead with 10 seconds remaining in regulation, KU indeed needed the “biggest shot in Kansas history” to send this classic into overtime.

And Chalmers delivered.

Sherron Collins rushed the ball upcourt and found Chalmers, who took one dribble to his left and let the fade-away trey fly from the top of the key.

“I thought they were going to keep us from shooting the three,” Chalmers said. “It was just a lucky shot. I thought it was going in when it left my hands. It felt pretty good when I released it.”

“I think the play was just go flat and have a penetration pitch,” Chalmers added. “I saw that Sherron kind of fumbled the ball. I was able to get a good look at it.”

Kansas was juiced in overtime, and Memphis seemed deflated after letting its nine-point lead slip away in regulation. The Tigers went one of eight from the field in the extra period and committed two turnovers. KU, meanwhile, hit four of six shots and went four of four from the free-throw line.

After the final buzzer, it was party time in the Alamodome. Self pumped both of his fists in the air. All the players stormed the court, jumped in the air, and embraced each other. Self walked over to Collins and gave him a long, tight hug. Confetti came falling down on the court and Jayhawk fans here in the dome and in Lawrence celebrated like it was 1988.

A KU fan even held up a sign: “1988: 20 Years In The Making.”

After all the celebration, after all the hugs, after all the love, Self addressed the fans from the podium on the court.

“This couldn’t have been scripted any better,” said Self, referencing the 20-year anniversary of the Danny Manning-led national championship team and adding that assistant coach Manning had just been selected for induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame yesterday.

After the players and coaches cut down the nets and watched the showing of “One Shining Moment on the video board,” Self talked more about the significance of 1988 at his press conference.

“I told our staff at pregame that Danny’s part of it now; he was a huge part of it then,” Self said. “(We) went through Nebraska. Went through Detroit (like the 1988 team in the NCAA tournament). And then when I saw the official line, Ed Hightower’s refereeing.

“I thought to myself, ‘The stars are aligning for whatever reason.’ There were so many reminders that this was gonna be a special night.”

It almost wasn’t for Kansas, when the ‘Hawks found themselves down by nine points with over two minutes left in regulation.

But there was Self to remind his players the game wasn’t over, to be tough, to fight like champions.

“Coach said, ‘We got to believe in ourselves,’” Darrell Arthur said. “We stayed in the attack mode. We never gave up.”

A key play in the comeback came with Memphis in possession and up 60-53. Collins then stole the ball and quickly drained a three-pointer. After Chris Douglas-Roberts made two free throws, Chalmers hit two charities himself to cut the lead to 62-58 with 1:23 remaining. Douglas-Roberts promptly missed a free throw, and then an Arthur jumper put KU within two.

Douglas-Roberts gave KU a huge break by missing two more free throws with 16 seconds left, but Darnell Jackson missed a block out and Robert Dozier grabbed the offensive rebound. Rose was fouled six seconds later and went to the line with a chance to ice the game.

After the Jayhawks called a timeout, Rose missed the first free throw and made the second charity. That set the stage for Chalmers’ heroics.

“I just knew we had the game after that,” Jackson said about overtime.

KU started the game tight, turning the ball over three times in the first 3:10 as Memphis jumped to a 9-3 lead. But the Jayhawks stormed back and got their first lead of the game (15-13) on a layup by Brandon Rush at the 10:58 mark. Chalmers scored five straight points and an Arthur dunk gave KU a 22-15 lead. The Tigers went on a 13-6 run before Kansas closed the half with a 5-0 run to lead 33-28 at intermission.

Kansas seemed to want it more than Memphis in the first half, beating them to loose balls and rebounds. The Jayhawks out-rebounded Memphis 19-11 and held the Tigers to just 39.3 percent shooting. KU dominated the paint as well, outscoring the Tigers 24-8 and getting big men Dozier and Joe Dorsey in foul trouble with two each. Arthur led the way with 10 points, while Douglas-Roberts carried the load with 13.

Memphis, though, picked up its intensity in the second half. Rose (18 points) led the attack with 15 points after halftime and even hit a desperation, off-balanced 19-footer from the left wing with the shot clock expiring to give Memphis a 56-49 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

But the Jayhawks wouldn’t die.

“We competed hard on every possession,” Self said. “You know, it’s one thing to win; it’s another thing to win the way we won. Just no quitting (with) these guys.”

Chalmers scored 18 points and added three assists and four steals in 40 minutes. He was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Rush scored 12 points and Collins added 11. Douglas-Roberts was high scorer for Memphis with 22 points.

In a game expected to be high scoring, KU managed just eight fast break points, compared with four for Memphis. KU won the national title with toughness, resiliency, and defense. While Memphis shot 50 percent in the second half, KU held the Tigers to just 40.3 percent shooting for the game (KU shot 52.7 percent) and out-rebounded them 39 to 28. Led by Arthur’s game-high 20 points (he also added 10 boards), KU also outscored Memphis in the paint, 44 to 26.

“Both teams take great pride in not giving up easy baskets,” Self said. “Regardless of what anybody thought, I knew it would not be one of these games because I felt our guys were so in tune of understanding if you let Memphis get out in the open court and run, their execution just goes to another level. I’ll be honest, I was kind of hoping it would be a grind-it-out game. We didn’t execute for the longest, but we certainly executed for the last seven minutes.”

And now the Jayhawks are on top of the college basketball world.

“I’m a little overwhelmed now,” Self said. “I’m totally humbled to have an opportunity to coach where I coach and coach a group of men that I get an opportunity to work with every day. I thought tonight, although I know they missed of couple of free throws and we caught a couple of breaks late, I don’t know if a coach really deserves what happened to me tonight because I can’t imagine it being any better.”

And the Jayhawks couldn’t have won the title without Miracle Mario. So can Chalmers now run for Mayor of Lawrence?

“If he can, he’ll win,” Collins said in the locker room.

Injured senior Rodrick Stewart would certainly vote for him after the biggest three-pointer of Chalmers’ life.

“That has to be one of the biggest shots in basketball history,” Stewart said. “To be down by eight with two minutes to go and make that type of shot.”

And now these Jayhawks (37-3) have left an indelible mark in KU basketball lore.

“This is the winningest team ever in the history of the program,” Self said. “I told them (before the game), ‘You’ll remember it as the best team ever in the history of the program if we take care of business.’ That to me is very humbling to think of all the great players and all the great teams, and this one will go down as the best ever.”

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