Opportunity knocks, Kansas misses it

NEW ORLEANS -- He ended the game on his back, sprawled out after missing his ninth 3-pointer of the night.

But he quickly sprang to his feet and started walking. He walked past the Superdome workers running platforms onto the court for Syracuse to accept the national championship trophy on. He moved past the Kansas band and cheerleaders.

As Kirk Hinrich turned down the long carpeted hallway toward the locker room he grabbed his jersey and yanked it halfway over his head. A hand reached out to pat him on the back. Hinrich looked up at the ceiling. Then as he made his final exit from his final college game, he dropped his slather-haired head and disappeared from sight.

Ironically, for Hinrich and fellow Kansas senior Nick Collison, a pair of Iowans who both bypassed the NBA for a last shot at an NCAA title, the championship game defeat Monday night against Syracuse was full of wasted opportunities.

There were missed free throws -- Kansas, which shot 67 percent as a team this season, made just 12 of 30. Collison, who finished with 19 points and 21 rebounds, was just 3-for-10. The Jayhawks missed 17 of 21 attempts in the second half alone as they tried to overcome an 11-point halftime deficit.

And there were missed 3-pointers. Hinrich, who shoots 42 percent beyond the arc, was just 3-for-12. His teammates didn't do any better -- they were just 1-for-8. For the season, Kansas shot 34 percent from behind the arc.

But despite it all, Kansas didn't quit. Not when the Orangemen came out smoking in the first half, hitting 10 of 13 treys. Not when Syracuse built an 18-point lead with five minutes left in the first half. As poorly as Kansas played out of the gate, there was a feeling that Collison and Hinrich, the Jayhawks' two senior stars, would not go out like this.

And they didn't, at least not without a fight.

Down 53-42 at halftime and 55-42 a minute into the second half, Kansas went on a 10-0 run to get to close to three at 55-52. But the Jayhawks could never quite catch the 'Cuse.

When Collison tried to save a ball near his own basket with 12:30 left in the game, he tossed it high in the air to Hinrich. But Hinrich was fouled in the air by Billy Edelin and came down on the side of his foot, twisting his ankle badly.

For a moment, it appeared the four-year run was over for Collison and Hinrich. Even when Hinrich returned two minutes later, Kansas struggled to make a run, trailing 72-62 with seven minutes left and 76-67 with 3:38 left.

Then, the two seniors made one last push.

Hinrich, favoring his left ankle, hit a 3 to cut the lead to six. A minute later he powered baseline and threw down a two-handed dunk to cut the deficit to five.

"I was just playing on adrenaline," he said.

After Syracuse scored on the other end, Hinrich fed Collison for an alley-oop flush, making it 80-75 with 1:53 left. Collison said he thought Kansas was about to make coach Roy Williams' dream of winning a national title a reality. Kansas closed to two points with 39 seconds left on a free throw by Jeff Graves -- the closest Kansas had been since 10-8 in the first half.

But with 24 seconds left, Collison fouled out.

That left Hinrich to take one more 3, from NBA range no less, with 18 seconds remaining and Kansas trailing 81-78. From just about every angle, the shot looked good. Especially to Hinrich.

"I thought it was in," said Hinrich. "I saw it go in."

Instead, it went in and out and straight up in the air before settling in Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony's arms.

Syracuse missed two free throws, allowing Kansas one more chance. They fired off a pair of 3s -- Michael Lee shot was blocked by Hakim Warrick, and Hinrich final futile fling at the buzzer didn't draw iron.

Many will point to Kansas miscues as the deciding factor.

"We got enough stops to make a run," said Collison. "Missed too many free throws, 12-for-30. If we shoot 50 percent, we tie. Just wasn't our night."

But Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team had been picked apart by dominating big men in the Big East (see Michael Sweetney), said it was the Orangemen's strategy to foul Kansas' big men.

"We fouled the guys we wanted to foul," said Boeheim, noting that Kansas' Jeff Graves was 2-for-7. "We could see right away they didn't have good rhythm. Any time they got close to the basket, we wanted to foul them."

Syracuse also struggled from the line (10 of 17) and missed five free throws themselves down the stretch.

"Somebody wants to write they lost the game because they missed free throws," Boeheim said. "I don't think they'd be writing the true story of the game."

Hinrich and Collison didn't see it that way. After the game, they didn't duck any questions, even in the face of a disappointing loss.

"I wouldn't give a million dollars to be on Syracuse right now," said Collison. "They have a ring. But my experience here has been unbelievable. You know, you're playing for the best man (Williams) in college basketball. I swear if we made the NIT, I would have felt the same way."

"I don't know how to explain it," said Hinrich, who by now had changed out of his uniform. "I'm done playing basketball here."

John Gustafson is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine