In the final seconds, when the comeback was finally complete, when the grueling final was finally over, Wayne Selden clutched a basketball in his right hand and flung it high into the air inside Yeomju Gymnasium. The ball sailed into the stands. The clock hit zero. And a wave of red, white and blue flooded onto the floor.
In the middle of the celebration, Frank Mason found a large American flag and draped it over his shoulders, like a Superman cape. Somehow, after a double-overtime classic, after nearly losing — twice — the United States had claimed gold at the World University Games with an 84-77 victory over Germany.
“Crazy game,” said Mason, the Kansas junior guard who had finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists. “We just had to stick with it.”
It was indeed an instant classic — if one can use that word to describe a sloppily played game between two wobbly-legged teams on a summer night in Gwangju, South Korea. After eight games in 11 days, a Jayhawk-infused Team USA had survived eight opponents and two overtimes to stay perfect in South Korea, earning the United States’ first World University Games gold in men’s basketball since 2005.
After eight games in 11 days, Mason, the Jayhawks’ pitbull floor general, would not let the United States lose.
In the final moments of regulation, Mason had converted two free throws with 21.7 seconds left, tying the score at 66-66. He had then recorded a steal on the next possession, ruining the Germans’ first chance to win.
In the final seconds of the first overtime, with the United States again trailing by two, Mason had willed his way to the basket, forcing another extra period with an athletic finish that tied the game.
That set the stage for a final round of heroics. With the United States trailing 77-75, Selden drilled a late three-pointer in the second overtime, and SMU guard Nic Moore picked up a crucial steal, turning a 77-75 deficit into an 82-77 lead with a decisive seven-point run.
Before his final three-pointer went down, Selden was just five of 27 from the floor. He had hoisted an ugly air ball in the final minutes of regulation. His legs were heavy and shot. But when he caught the ball on the wing, he didn’t hesitate.
“We basically just fought to the end,” Selden said.
For Team USA, that was enough. Just barely.
Selden finished with 22 points while shooting six of 28 from the floor. Senior forward Perry Ellis scored 19 points and procured 10 rebounds while making just six of 21 field goals. The United States shot just 31.7 percent overall, but they held Germany to 38 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 59-46.
“Our team really bonded and came together,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And to win it the way we won it tonight, playing against a Germany team that outplayed us the majority of the game … we were dead tired, no legs, no lift. We couldn’t make a shot.
“And then basically, (we) just kind of willed ourselves to win late.”
Fifteen days earlier, the Kansas basketball traveling party boarded a commercial flight in Kansas City and departed for Gwanju, a city of 1.5 million people in the southern half of South Korea. The Jayhawks were the first college basketball team to represent the United States at the World University Games since Northern Iowa in 2007, and in those first days in Gwangju, Self still didn’t know what to expect.
“I just want the kids to go over there and have fun,” Self said then. “See what happens and compete.”
Two weeks later, on a Monday night in Gwangju — early Monday morning in Kansas City — Self and his Jayhawk version of Team USA arrived at Yeomju Gymnasium to face Germany in the gold-medal game. Two years after the United States finished ninth at the last World University Games — featuring a collection of college standouts — the Jayhawks’ trip to South Korea had gone about as well as anyone could have expected. The United States was perfect in pool play. Selden had crafted a breakout tournament. Senior forward Hunter Mickelson had been a Korean revelation.
The good fortune lasted for one more day. The United States built a double-digit lead in the first quarter behind an early 14-0 run. For long stretches of the first half, the Germans struggled to dissect the United States’ man-to-man defense. But the pace would slow down, and Germany climbed to within 38-33 at the half.
Mason picked up his third foul in the third quarter and headed to the bench. With Mason and Mickelson off the floor, the Germans would take advantage, taking a brief 54-53 lead before the United States tied the game at 54-54 heading to the fourth quarter.
For most of the fourth quarter — and both overtime periods — the United States looked gassed, missing a bevy of close shots and layups. Selden looked spent. Ellis clanked a litany of decent looks. But in the end, Mason made enough plays to help the United States survive.
“Coach just told me to stay aggressive, and my teammates told me to stay aggressive,” Mason said. “And that’s what I did. I went out and tried to make plays for them first and me second.”
As the buzzer sounded, Self handed out hugs to his tired team near midcourt as the crowd inside Yeomju Gymnasium chanted “USA, USA!” After more than two weeks in South Korea, the mission was accomplished.
“It’s my first one of these,” Selden said, clutching his gold medal after the game. “We’re real happy about this. We’re going to cherish this moment.”