SAN ANTONIO – “I thought we were national champions,” Memphis coach John Calipari said, the pain of a stunning collapse fresh on his face and on those of his players late Monday night at the Alamodome.
A nine-point lead with 2:12 remaining in regulation had evaporated in fast, flawed fashion, taking away that vision and blurring it into an absolute nightmare.
A turnover, missed free throws and a big man on the bench gave Kansas new life.
A contested three-pointer by Mario Chalmers with 2.1 seconds left in regulation resuscitated KU and stole the last sliver of the Tigers’ momentum.
The Jayhawks ran away with a 75-68 overtime victory and the NCAA crown, riding the opposite wave of emotion from Chalmers’ shot into and through the extra session.
“I just dropped to my knees,” Memphis senior forward Joey Dorsey said of his reaction after Chalmers hit the dagger. “I was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe he hit that shot because I knew we were ready to cut the nets down.’ ”
By the time OT had started, you knew Memphis wouldn’t be needing any scissors. Inconsistency at the free-throw line, long a sticking point for this team, stuck the Tigers in the most pivotal moments of the season’s biggest game.
Memphis, which made just 61.3 percent of its free throws this season, hit just one of its final five attempts from the line in the second half.
“Yeah, it came back and bit us,” junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. “We missed them at a crucial time.”
There were other issues to be sure. Dorsey, the Tigers’ primary presence inside, fouled out with 1:23 left in the second half. He underperformed against Kansas’ strong and deep frontcourt, finishing with six points and just two rebounds.
“When I got my fifth foul I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Dorsey said. “I felt like I was letting my teammates down again. And I was hoping it wouldn’t go to overtime.”
With Dorsey out, the Tigers still had chances to ice the game but didn’t take care of the ball.
A steal and three-pointer by KU’s Sherron Collins cut Memphis’ lead to 60-56 with 1:46 left. Kansas desperately fouled Douglas-Roberts seven seconds later, and the junior guard made a pair of free throws to build the Tigers’ edge back to six.
But after Dorsey’s fifth foul, Chalmers knocked down two free throws to make it 62-58.
Douglas-Roberts, who along with freshman star Derrick Rose had carried this team to the brink of a title, stepped to the line and missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at 1:15. Darrell Arthur’s ensuing jumper with just over a minute left pulled Kansas back within two points.
Douglas-Roberts (22 points) was back on the line with 16 seconds left. He missed twice, Robert Dozier rebounding the second and feeding Rose, who was hacked with 10 seconds on the clock.
Rose missed the first free throw, made the second and set the stage for Chalmers’ heroics.
Rose had a hand in the Kansas guard’s face on the tying three, but it didn’t matter.
“I was right there, left hand up,” said Rose, who finished with 18 points, but made just one of six three-point attempts. “He’s a good shooter. He just shot it over me, I guess.”
Memphis, which won a record 38 games and lost just twice, will look much different next season. Both Rose and Douglas-Roberts are expected to head for the NBA, though they said they hadn’t made their decisions immediately after the game. Dorsey has exhausted his eligibility.
Calipari, who said he still was numb, will remain and probably kick himself for the way this one got away for a long, long time. Many have questioned why the Tigers did not foul Chalmers before he got off the shot.
“They did everything they were supposed to do to put us in a position to win a national title,” Calipari said of his players. “What happened out there is not on one person, it’s on all of us, including me. You have the kind of lead we had, you’re supposed to win the game.”
Calipari tried to recapture his thoughts from the final 10 seconds of regulation. It was a religious experience.
“When Derrick went to the line, I sat there and I said, ‘Lord, if he makes these two, we’re supposed to be national champs. And if that’s your will, I’m fine with it. If he misses them, and we’re not, I’m fine with that, too.’ I’m probably not supposed to say that, but that’s where I was.”
Apparently, God’s a Jayhawks fan.