Frank Mason clutched a bottle of blue Gatorade in his right hand and moved toward the sideline inside Dongkang Gymnasium, peering to his right. Perry Ellis slipped a dark backpack on his back and followed a few paces behind.
“One more and we got that gold,” Mason shouted, looking at Kansas assistant coach Jerrance Howard, who was capturing the moment on his iPhone.
“One more!” Ellis said.
For the last two weeks, Howard has been documenting the Jayhawks’ trip to Gwangju, South Korea, where they have represented the United States in an international basketball competition. Film sessions, trips into the city, post-game meals at a local Outback Steakhouse — all have been captured by Howard, the Jayhawks’ young, third-year assistant coach.
Perhaps, though, Howard never envisioned capturing this moment.
On early Sunday morning, while most of Kansas slept, a Jayhawk-infused Team USA earned the right to play for a gold medal at the World University Games, defeating Russia 78-68 inside Dongkang Gymnasium. Playing its seventh game in 10 days, the U.S. stayed perfect in South Korea, withstanding a late run from the Russians and cruising to its latest double-digit victory against international competition.
“If you’re in the game, you got to win it,” Kansas coach Bill Self told reporters after the game.
The U.S, will play Germany in the gold-medal game at 7 a.m. (CT) Monday. It’s the United States’ first appearance in the gold-medal game in the World University Games since 2005. (That was also the last time the United States won gold.)
“It’ll be a great thrill for our players,” Self said. “I think before the trip, if you were to ask me: ‘Man, if we could get to the medal round and, God, if we’d have a shot at playing for a bronze or whatever, it’d be a great trip.’ But here we are … our guys haven’t settled for that at all.”
Senior forward Perry Ellis led the Jayhawks with 23 points, while junior guard Wayne Selden, perhaps the player of the tournament thus far, added 22 points and helped stave off a Russian run that stretched the final minutes of the third quarter and opening moments of the fourth. Junior big man Landen Lucas, who saw his minutes dip during pool play, also contributed one of his biggest performances of the tournament, finishing with seven points and five rebounds.
“I never had this opportunity in my life, and who knows when we’ll get this opportunity again,” Selden said. “So we’re really going to seize the moment.”
Selden did just that on Sunday. After building a double-digit lead after halftime, the United States watched that lead evaporate. Russia pulled ahead 62-61 early in the fourth quarter. The momentum seemed lost. And the United States’ gold-medal hopes suddenly seemed in jeopardy. Selden, though, responded with a five-point burst, and the United States maintained control for the rest of the way.
“That’s one thing we’ve done the whole tournament, even against Canada (in the exhibition games),” Self said. “We get behind and guys don’t panic.”
If you watched Sunday’s game live from the United States, you either stayed up well past your bedtime or set your alarm for the pre-dawn hours on Sunday morning. The United States, which had defeated Lithuania in the quarterfinals on late Friday night, tipped off against Russia at 4:30 a.m. central time, the latest game to wreak havoc on sleep schedules.
In the first half, the United States built a 42-39 lead as Ellis had 14 points and two rebounds. With a roster that includes SMU guard Nic Moore and Florida Gulf Coast’s Julian DeBose, five different players scored for the United States during the opening quarter.
But once again, Self leaned on Mason, Selden and Ellis, the trio of veterans that has carried the U.S. for large stretches of this tournament.
“We locked in and their ball movement wasn’t as good,” Self said. “They didn’t drive and pitch and create as many open looks as they did early. But we guarded (well) and then we had two individuals just play great down the stretch — Perry and Wayne were both terrific.”
In the moments after the victory, Self recalled his team’s opening game in South Korea, a hard-fought victory against Turkey. In the opening minutes of that game, Turkey hit the U.S. with a barrage of three-pointers and Self saw a team that was “scared to death.” The U.S., of course, settled down and ran away from Turkey in the second half.
Nine days later, the run continues.
“We’re in attack mode,” Self said. “It’s fun to coach kids that are in attack mode.”