March 29, 2003
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Nick Collison did it one game, Kirk Hinrich the next.
That's how it works at Kansas, and the payoff is a return trip to the Final Four.
A trip to New Orleans is worth a group hug to the Jayhawks.
Hinrich went from his least productive performance of the season to one of his best, scoring 28 points and blocking a 3-point attempt by Jason Gardner in the final seconds Saturday as the second-seeded Jayhawks beat top-seeded Arizona 78-75 to win the West Regional.
''He struggled three or four games this season and the next game, he was sensational,'' Kansas coach Roy Williams said. ''He was sensational today. He always competes.''
The victory was the 1,800th for Kansas -- third-most in NCAA history. The Jayhawks will play in their 12th Final Four, the fourth in Roy Williams' 15 years as coach.
Williams has a 417-100 career record and his .807 winning percentage is the best among active coaches, but he's never won a national championship.
This team appears poised and ready.
''I feel awfully good right now,'' Williams said with a big smile.
So much for that anticipated Arizona-Kentucky matchup in the national semifinals next Saturday in the Superdome.
Instead, the Jayhawks (29-7) will face Marquette in New Orleans. The third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-5) stunned No. 1 Kentucky 83-69 earlier Saturday to win the Midwest Regional.
The Jayhawks blew leads of 16 points in the first half and 14 in the second, but did enough in the end to win.
''It's starting to sink in,'' said Luke Walton, one of Arizona's three senior starters. ''I know it's going to be the last time in the locker room with the coaches, the players. That's the hardest part, knowing that it's all over and we're not going to have another shot at it.''
Hinrich was a miserable 1-for-9 for two points in Kansas' 69-65 victory over Duke in the regional semifinals.
So Collison took over, scoring a career-high 33 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in a performance Williams called the best he's ever had by one of his players in a big game.
The Wildcats made life difficult for Collison in this game, holding him to eight points and nine rebounds.
So Hinrich took over.
''I think I just knew how big a game this was,'' the 6-foot-4 senior said. ''I don't remember ever being so anxious and giddy before a game. I knew against Duke, I wasn't the aggressor. I got frustrated early and forced some shots.
''Today, I just wanted to come out strong. If I was going to go down, I was going to go down firing.''
Hinrich fell one point shy of his career high. He shot 10-for-23, including 6-for-17 from 3-point range, and added five rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks.
The second block won't soon be forgotten in Kansas.
After the Jayhawks committed a shot clock violation, the Wildcats took possession with 7.1 seconds remaining. Gardner let fly from about 25 feet away, but Hinrich slapped the ball away.
Walton grabbed it and fed the ball back to Gardner in the left corner, but his second attempt to tie the game missed as time expired, setting off a wild Kansas celebration.
''I knew he was going to shoot it, I was able to get my hand up and get a piece of it,'' Hinrich said. ''I think my height helped.''
Gardner said he had a good look at the second attempt, but it just didn't go down.
The defeat was a tough one for Arizona and 68-year-old Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, who remained stuck at 499 victories in his 20 seasons as leader of the Wildcats.
Jeff Graves had 13 points and 15 rebounds, and Keith Langford also scored 13 points for Kansas.
Collison sat out key minutes down the stretch with four fouls, but his second basket of the game with 1:27 left gave Kansas a 76-73 lead.
Langford made a free throw with 4:31 remaining to snap a 69-all tie and put the Jayhawks ahead for good, and his runner with 50.6 seconds to go completed the scoring.
The sophomore guard then drew a charging foul on Walton with 43.4 seconds left, setting up the final sequence.
''I'm going to have to live with it,'' Walton said. ''I probably should have shot the 3.''
It was the last game for seniors Gardner, Walton and Anderson. But Hinrich and Collison -- key seniors on the other side -- get to play on.
Arizona outscored Kansas 18-4 to finish the first half and start the second, erasing all but two points of a 16-point deficit.
It was reminiscent of a game between the teams Jan. 25, when the Wildcats trailed by 20 before outscoring Kansas 67-30 to finish the game for a 91-74 victory that snapped the Jayhawks' 23-game home winning streak.
Just when it appeared the Wildcats were in control, Kansas went on a 14-2 run capped by Bryant Nash's breakaway dunk to go ahead 56-42.
That only seemed to stir up the Wildcats, who scored the game's next 16 points -- eight by Gardner -- in just more than three minutes for a two-point lead with 10:32 remaining.
Neither team led by more than four after that.
Hinrich was called for traveling in the final minute of the first half, prompting an angry display from the normally mild-mannered Williams.
First, he tore off his jacket and threw it on a chair behind the Kansas bench. Then, he stomped toward the official who called the violation, voicing his disapproval, but it was to no avail.
The game was delayed for five minutes because the scoreboard wasn't working. The lights came on shortly after the opening tip.
Olson and Williams exchanged a few words -- and chuckles -- in front of the scorer's table during the delay.