Elijah Johnson pulled the jersey over his head. Tears filled Thomas Robinson’s eyes.
A Kansas team that seemingly did the impossible by reaching the NCAA championship game had one final burst of magic.
But it wasn’t enough.
No miracle moment to pull them through, not the way there had been for nearly each step on the bracket.
Kentucky was simply too good, and that’s why the Wildcats donned the championship caps and shirts after a 67-59 victory in the title game Monday at the Superdome.
“I don’t feel like we lost it as much as Kentucky won it,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Kansas had sliced an 18-point deficit to five late in the game.
But with ball and trailing by six twice in the final 2 minutes, Kansas couldn’t narrow the deficit.
Both times, Kentucky’s defense came up with the big play.
First, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got a hand on Tyshawn Taylor’s drive. Taylor went under the basket and tried a reverse layup, but the ball hardly left his hand. Taylor gathered it, but his pass to the top of the key missed its mark for a turnover.
“I thought I had the layup,” Taylor said. “I probably should have finished on the same side. He used his length and made an unbelievable play.”
The Jayhawks caught a break when Kentucky freshman guard Marquis Teague missed the front end of a one-and-one with 35.7 seconds remaining. Robinson pulled down the rebound, and the Jayhawks got the ball to Johnson. He thought he had a shot, but lengthy Anthony Davis forced Johnson to go up and down with the ball in his hand. Another turnover.
Davis finished with six points. He missed nine of 10 shots. But he grabbed 16 rebounds and was chosen the Final Four’s most outstanding player. Self said Davis made the game’s biggest play because before Johnson knew he had traveled, he had shot the ball through the hoop.
“It would have been a one-possession game at that point,” Self said. “He’s such a good player.”
When Doron Lamb, who finished with 22 points, dropped in two free throws with 17.5 seconds remaining, that was it.
The Jayhawks’ season was about to end with a 32-7 record, an incredible run through the NCAA Tournament about to fall short.
This KU team had trailed by double digits in three of their previous NCAA games and found a way back each time.
But Monday the opponent was too good, the deficit too large. Top-seeded Kentucky pushed its lead to 18 late in the first half when Kansas fell victim to fast breaks. At halftime, the Wildcats led 41-27 and had shot 53.3 percent.
That wouldn’t last. Kansas hunkered down and played the type of defense that got it through March. The Jayhawks rode Robinson, who finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds, and Taylor, who had 19 points.
This was likely the final college game for both. Robinson is a junior and hasn’t announced his intention to enter the NBA Draft, but it’s a foregone conclusion.
Taylor is a senior.
“I’m proud of how we competed,” Taylor said. “As a senior I have a bad feeling that I don’t get a chance to make it up to these guys.”
Taylor’s three-pointer from the top of the key — his first of the NCAA Tournament and ending a personal streak of 23 straight misses — helped spark the Kansas comeback.
“I didn’t want to be down by 18,” Self said, “but we wanted it to be a one-, two-, three-possession game, and that’s what we had.”
So when Kansas was in a huddle with 3:52 remaining — and Robinson going to the line with KU down by nine — Self was positive.
After all, in 2008, the Jayhawks trailed Memphis by nine with 2:12 remaining when it started the remarkable comeback that forced overtime, where the Jayhawks won the championship.
“I reminded them of that,” Self said. “But we just didn’t have the mojo tonight.”
Kentucky did. Coach John Calipari, the former Kansas assistant who coached Memphis in that crushing loss, won his first NCAA championship. The Wildcats, 38-2, set a record for victories in a season and will be remembered as one of the best teams in recent years.
For Kansas, the magic wasn’t there, and the ride was over. Tears flowed and jerseys were pulled over head, and as guard Conner Teahan sat by himself in the locker room afterwards, the hurt was obvious.
“I think in a couple of weeks I’ll feel happy about how well we came together as a team,” said Teahan, a senior. “Kentucky deserved to win the championship, but I can’t help but feel if we came out a little more sound it would have been a different story.
“Hopefully these guys coming back will be able to make next year a special year.”