When legacies are on the line, it is no longer just a game. It becomes something bigger than the moment, something you can feel but not touch. And it makes even breathing difficult.
Which is why a national championship game that seemed over was not really over. Memphis had made almost all of its free throws since the Sweet 16 until it came time to clinch a title with a nine-point lead and just 2 minutes to play against Kansas at the Alamodome.
A turnover and four missed foul shots - three by star Chris Douglas-Roberts and one by Derrick Rose, who looked as if he had won the game for Memphis with one of the great 8-minute runs in championship history when he scored 16 of his team's 18 points and assisted on the other basket - negated all the Tigers had done to get back in the game and seemingly take control. Then, when they had a three-point lead with just 5 seconds left, they tried to foul Sherron Collins, but it was not called. So Collins pitched the ball to Mario Chalmers, who got a great look at a three to tie with 3 seconds in regulation. It was perfect and sent the game careening into overtime.
"We were fouling there," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "Our man pushed [Collins] to the floor. "
But when Calipari really wanted a foul called on his team, there was no call.
Memphis, so sure it had the title, had let KU off the hook. And had nothing left to give. Calipari, just seconds away from a title and perhaps a season just five points away from 40-0, had to watch as his team took bad shots that missed badly, forgot how to defend and shot 1-for-8 in OT. KU was not going to give it away. The Jayhawks made their foul shots in OT and won the title, 75-68, in overtime.
The inventor of the game, James Naismith, the first coach at Kansas, is buried not from Phog Allen Fieldhouse, named in honor of the man who coached the Jayhawks' first national champions in 1952. There was the near-miss, triple-overtime loss to North Carolina that Wilt Chamberlain took with him to his grave. There was the Larry Brown-Danny Manning team that came from nowhere to steal the 1988 championship for Oklahoma in one of the great one-game coaching clinics in championship history. And all those four other finals appearances that ended in almost
And 20 years after that improbable championship, KU had another that, in this one game, was even more improbable and not because this KU team was not most deserving. It surely was that, but this game really did seem lost.
"I thought we were national champions," Calipari said. "That's the great thing about college basketball . . . Then, it's OT and it's on again. You're supposed to win that game. "
Only they didn't. Kansas took it away.
Kansas (37-3) outshot 39 of 40 teams. Only USC shot better than the Jayhawks in a season that saw them lose those games by a combined 13 points, all on the road in the Big 12.
They already have that eerie and unforgettable Rock Chalk Jayhawk, the best chant in sports, all of those fans swaying in Allen as KU leads big and it's getting late. Now, they have this.
When the buzzer sounded, KU coach Bill Self just leaned back in his chair, almost in disbelief at what he had just seen. He was not alone.
"I thought this would be great," Self said. "It's even better than I thought. "
Word on the street is that T. Boone Pickens is about to throw many millions at Self to coach Oklahoma State, his alma mater. The price just went up, way up.
In a tournament that had blowouts in 43 of the first 63 games, this was a game where leads were small and disappeared in an instant.
Kansas seemed to have Memphis on the ropes late in the first half. Then the Tigers reversed everything in the second. Finally, it looked as if Rose had won the game for Memphis.
Rose and Douglas-Roberts combined for 40 points. They took 13 free throws and made nine. The four they missed were in the last 75 seconds of regulation.
"I really can't explain why," Douglas-Roberts said. "I just missed 'em. "
Joey Dorsey fouled out with 1:23 left and had to watch Chalmers' trey from the bench.
"I just dropped to my knees," Dorsey said. "I thought we were ready to cut down the nets. "
KU's Russell Robinson took just one shot, but he played defense on Rose as well as it can be played. Then, Rose went completely off and Memphis looked as if it had the national championship. Depending upon your perspective, the Tigers (38-2) gave it away. Or Kansas took it.
"They're hurting bad," Calipari said of his team. "They were so close to the national title. "
The confetti, however, rained down on Kansas. The song played for the Jayhawks. And their fans headed for the Riverwalk.