Wrapping Up From San Antonio

Sherron Collins (Steve Puppe photo)

At 11:11 p.m. on Monday night, Bill Self climbed the ladder to cut the final piece of net following KU's dramatic 75-68 overtime victory over Memphis in the national championship game at the Alaomdome in San Antonio.

For a coach who has been wrongly criticized and maligned for two first-round losses in the NCAA tournament and losing in the Elite Eight four times, Self was now on top of the college basketball world.

With the prized net in hand, he turned to the rabid Jayhawks’ fans in the stands and pumped his right fist in the air Then he turned around and faced the KU fans on the other side and pumped his left fist three times.

After soon visiting with his team in the celebratory locker room, Self and the five starters walked out the door. As they headed toward the interview room for the postgame press conference, a reporter quickly asked Self and the players how they felt.

“Unbelievable,” Self said.

“I feel really great,” senior Russell Robinson said with a huge smile. “Number one.”

“It’s a great way to go out,” added fellow senior Darnell Jackson.

After the press conference, Self met with a group of reporters across from the KU locker room and talked about one of the greatest nights of his life. Fittingly, for a man who had achieved college basketball’s biggest prize, Self stood tall on a small platform to get some breathing room from all the microphones and cameras in his face.

The first question to Self was if the Jayhawks should be coined Mario and the Miracles after Mario Chalmers hit a three-pointer with two seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime and cap off a dramatic nine-point comeback with over two minutes remaining.

“That’s pretty good,” Self said.

However, the championship coach quickly added with a smile: “We got to come up with something different because it was Danny and the Miracles (in 1988). We got to be more creative than that.

“Mario made just an unbelievable play.”

While Chalmers’ shot was KU’s one shining moment, the Jayhawks also made other great plays down the stretch to rally from their nine-point deficit. And they made their free throws. While the 2003 Kansas team shot just 12 of 30 from the line in its loss to Syracuse in the title game, this Jayhawk squad made 14 of 15 free throws against Memphis, compared to just 12 of 19 for the Tigers.

“We competed hard, we didn’t play great,” Self said. “But when it counted the most, we played unbelievable. Guys just didn’t quit. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t (have doubts). But the thing I told them, ‘We will get a break. When we catch a break, we just got to get stops one at a time and go score.’

“The breaks were when they missed one of two free throws (Derrick Rose with 10 seconds remaining in regulation) and two of two (Chris Douglas-Roberts with 16 seconds left). Sherron (Collins) made an unbelievable play to make the steal and made the three in the corner (with 1:46 left in regulation). When it was four with a minute and half left, there’s still plenty of time. That play got us right back in it.”

Self said KU’s body language was good in the timeout huddles and on the court late in the game.

“It’s probably easier to be positive because you know it’s the end,” Self said. “Maybe if it was in January, guys’ shoulders would stoop, but that was not the case. The frustration was close to setting in, but it hadn’t quite set in yet.”

Of course, Self was overjoyed when Chalmers’ three sent the game into overtime. So how long was the rainbow shot in the air?

“This whole weekend has been a blur to me,” Self said. “Really, the last eight or nine days has been a blur. It didn’t seem like it was in the air longer than Davidson’s (Jason Richards’ missed three-pointer with two seconds left in the Elite Eight) was in there. Isn’t it a fine line between losing and winning? That could have ended our season and we make the same shot that they missed. In athletics, you understand that if you’re around it every day.”

Despite winning the national title, Self said he didn’t view himself any differently than he did before the game.

“I don’t buy into all of that stuff,” Self said. “The outside public may view people who win a championship differently. But coaches know you don’t get smarter because a hard shot goes in than if it doesn't go in.”

Self instead praised the senior class of Robinson, Jackson, Jeremy Case, Rod Stewart and Sasha Kaun, who won seven conference championships (four Big 12 titles and three postseason tournament championships) and now the ultimate prize — the national championship.

“It’s one of the winningest classes,” Self said. “It’s got to go down as maybe not the winningest class from a numbers standpoint, but as one of the best classes ever. Not the best players, not (the ones who) scored the most points, but gave us a chance to win every night.”

Indeed, they did. And they cherished every moment afterwards in the jubilant locker room. Case sat by his locker cradling the game ball by his face with a peaceful smile he never wanted to let go. Next to his right was Kaun, who sat in his chair and answered questions from reporters knowing his journey from Russia to the United States at age 16 had culminated in the greatest night of his life.

Across from Kaun was Stewart, who stood proudly on crutches talking about the gutty performance of his teammates. While he wasn’t able to play with his knee injury, Stewart never felt any better.

Heck, he even wanted to play.

“Knowing my last game as a Jayhawk we won, that’s a great feeling,” Stewart said. “I was going to kid around with coach and tell him to put me in just for a second, crutches and all, but I didn’t want to test it.”

Stewart didn’t “test it,” but his teammates scored straight A’s with their remarkable comeback.

“Most teams would have folded when they were down like we were, but that just tells a lot about our players,” Stewart said. “We never fold and we never give up.”

Next to Stewart’s left sat Arthur, who was overwhelmed with emotion. He spoke of his heart-gripping talk with his mom and grandma after the game.

“They were crying so hard,” said Arthur, who had one of the best games of his career with 20 points and 10 rebounds, “I just hugged them. They told me they were so proud of me. I just told them I loved them. Tears were coming down my face. I was balling out there. Those were tears of happiness. It was crazy out there.”

Like Arthur and all the Jayhawks , Kaun was thrilled to be national champs.

“It is truly unbelievable right now,” he said. “We proved we are the best team in America.”

And then there was director of basketball operations Ronnie Chalmers sitting down talking quietly with reporters. He was so proud of his team, so proud of his son, Mario, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“I feel like I hit the lottery,” Chalmers said.

Speaking of the lottery, former Jayhawk standout Julian Wright and current New Orleans Hornets’ rookie and lottery pick was even here to join his ex-teammates in the celebration.

As the locker room was closing and reporters made their way out, senior walk-on Brad Witherspoon couldn’t contain his excitement. From growing up in small Humbolt, Kan., to walking on at Kansas, to now realizing  his greatest dream of winning a national championship, Witherspoon had great reason to smile knowing he'll  be a part of history forever.

“It feels like a million bucks, man, a 100,000 million bucks,” Witherspoon said. (It’s great to) go out on a win, on top.”

For the Jayhawks and Self, this was indeed the crowning moment of their careers.

“Professionally, this is the best,” Self said. “It still doesn’t mean more than your kids being born and all those things. To fans, it maybe should, but trust me, I had the adrenaline flowing just as much  ...  Professionally, I can’t imagine it being any better than this.”

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