In the end, Kansas’ best player, perhaps the one who will win the majority of top national individual awards, couldn’t get the Jayhawks through their biggest game.
But Frank Mason went down battling with 21 points.
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The Jayhawks fell to Oregon 74-60 in a crushing ending to a season that seemed destined for the Final Four.
Instead, they’ll bid farewell to a handful of players, including Mason, the team’s starting point guard for the past three seasons. Bill Self may not miss a player more.
“Frank had the best year of anybody I ever coached, and he’s as tough as anybody I ever coached,” Self said. “He loves this place as much as anybody I ever coached.”
Mason figured to be a big part of Kansas’ quest to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2012. It turned out, at least on the offensive end, he was about all the Jayhawks had.
The final few seconds ticked away and Mason attempted one last meaningless shot. Like most for the Jayhawks on Saturday, this one rimmed out, leaving his final stat line at 8 for 20 from the floor, four assists and four rebounds.
He ends his KU career as the program’s sixth-leading career scorer and sixth in assists.
Mason finishes the season as the Big 12 scoring leader, entering the game with a 20.9 average. He also topped the league in three-point percentage at 48.2.
He was KU’s top scorer in the NCAA Tournament, topping 20 points in all four games. He scored at least 20 points in his final seven games.
Mason was named to the Midwest Regional all-tournament team, along with Josh Jackson from the Jayhawks and Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player.
After the handshake line, Mason was the last Kansas player to leave the floor.
Playing in friendly Sprint Center, Kansas couldn’t overcome Oregon’s standouts, primarily Brooks and Dorsey from the perimeter and the shot-blocking ability of Bell around the block.
Too often the Ducks’ top guns shot over the smaller Mason and backcourt mate Devonté Graham, allowing Oregon to open a large lead that Kansas could never put much of a dent in.
“I think we started the game really tight,” Mason said. “We didn’t take good shots. We should have moved the ball, (played) more downhill and created easy shots for each other.”
That never seemed to happen as Kansas struggled with shooting against an athletic Oregon defense. The Jayhawks shot 35 percent for the game. In the second half, they missed 14 of 15 shots from behind the arc.
Mason has already been named a consensus All-American and won the first national player of the year award, presented by the Sporting News.
His story endeared him to Kansas fans. Mason came to Lawrence as the lowest profile player in a recruiting class that included Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden.
Mason signed to play at Towson State out of Petersburg, Va., but didn’t qualify academically and attended a year of military school.
His game grew, and he got an offer from Kansas. Earlier in the week, Self called him the “steal of the recruiting class.” Not just for Kansas but nationally.
Saturday, the trouble for Kansas started early, after Jackson picked up his second foul 2 1/2 minutes into the game, the Jayhawks losing their most creative offensive weapon for the bulk of the half.
Mason took it upon himself to carry Kansas, and although KU played from behind throughout the first half, Mason’s scoring kept it within striking distance.
But a pair of three-pointers from Dorsey, including a buzzer-beater that banked in from about 30 feet, gave the Ducks an 11-point halftime lead.
That was the game’s critical stretch. Mason’s scoring was the Jayhawks’ counter to the Oregon hot hand. But on the final two possessions of the first half, KU committed turnovers and the Ducks got the baskets from Dorsey.
KU had come back from double-digit deficits several times this season. But this one felt different to Self.
“In all honesty, in the games where we came back …we weren’t playing against athletes a lot of times of what Oregon has,” Self said.
The Jayhawks could never recover. Mason couldn’t keep up the scoring pace, and the rest of Kansas couldn’t pick him up, ending the career of one of the Jayhawks’ greatest players.
Mason likely will be at the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., this week to collect other individual honors. That’s not how he wanted to attend his first Final Four.