Without Collins, there are no Chalmers heroics

SAN ANTONIO -- Sherr'Mari Collins blew out the candles on his first birthday cake on Sunday. His daddy missed the party. He was busy working.

He got his son a heckuva gift, a tiny piece of twine he collected in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Wasn't easy to get, harder than finding whatever the hottest kiddie gift of the moment is. Daddy had to fight off the bad guys, overcome defeat and then finally climb a ladder, scissors in hand, to snip down Sherr'Mari's gift. You won't hear him complain anytime soon.

"Other than the day my son was born, this is the happiest day of my life," Sherron Collins said.

The shining moment of Kansas' 75-68 epic national championship win over Memphis belongs to Mario Chalmers and his instant classic of a 3-pointer. But without Collins, Chalmers' shot never happens and the national champion comes from an upstart newbie on the basketball scene, not the game's most storied program.

It was Collins who pushed the ball downcourt, going just fast enough so that the Tigers couldn't foul him to negate an attempt at a 3-pointer and basically end the game.

It was Collins who ditched the ball to Chalmers for the buzzer-beater to force overtime, and it was Collins who stole an inbounds play two minutes earlier and then hit a 3 to turn a daunting seven-point lead into a gettable four-point deficit.

"Sherron is a clutch player," Kansas coach Bill Self said.

Kansas' epic comeback -- or Memphis' epic disaster, depending on your address -- gave Self, a man who was chided two weeks ago for his inability to make the Final Four, his first championship. Kansas has its first title since 1988 and the Big 12 its first crown in conference history.

"They said we couldn't play with North Carolina. They said, how were we going to beat Memphis?" Collins said. "Well, now what? Nobody ever asked how they were going to stop us."

One piece of twine dangling from the back of his brand-new national championship cap and another in his hand, an emotional Collins searched the stands as he was leaving the court. His mother, Stacey Harris, had made her way down to the railing, and before Collins left to celebrate with his teammates, he grabbed his mother in a bear hug. Harris, her voice all but gone from the screaming, watched him in wonder.

Other than the day my son was born, this is the happiest day of my life.

--Sherron Collins

This hasn't been an easy year for Collins. He's been away from Sherr'Mari, who lives in Chicago with Collins' girlfriend, Re'Quiya Aguirre. He sees him when he can, but getting from Lawrence to Chicago isn't exactly easy for a basketball player whose schedule has about 10 free minutes a week.

And just two games into the season, Collins suffered a stress fracture in his foot. The injury was significant enough that Collins immediately underwent surgery. He missed only six games, but if you ask him, he'll tell you he has yet to feel like himself this season. Averaging 16 points per game before the injury, Collins struggled to even reach double digits when he returned in January, his numbers dwindling to 8.9 points per game.

But in the only game that mattered this year, Collins played 34 minutes on a foot that still aches pretty regularly.

"I'm just in awe of him, in awe," Harris said of her son. "He's a great man."

Great enough that Self trusted Collins to log the brunt of the point guard duties while also guarding Derrick Rose.

Aside from maybe a Wal-Mart greeter, there aren't any more thankless jobs. No matter how well you do -- and for 27 minutes Collins did darn well -- it never ends up looking like you did much all day.

Collins knows that. Back in high school, his Crane High School faced Rose's Simeon Career Academy four times. Rose and Simeon won three out of four.

So when Self decided to stick with Collins because he seemed more productive offensively than Russell Robinson, Collins knew what he was in for on the opposite end. Rose had just three points for the first 27:50 of the game.

And then he finished with 18, plus eight assists and six rebounds.

"I just tried to stay in front of him," Collins said. "I remembered from high school that Derrick has another gear, so you really have to stay up on him."

In June, Rose most likely will have the ultimate bragging rights when some NBA team turns him into an instant multimillionaire. For now, though, Collins is the toast of Chicago.

"He did what he was supposed to do as a point guard: control the team, push the ball up the court and make tough plays at the end," Rose said. "He just controlled the game."

Collins wasn't perfect. He coughed up four turnovers and his decision to try to take on three defenders on a full-court push with under 30 seconds to play and Kansas down two ended up in a blocked shot and what may have been disaster if the Tigers had held the ball or if Chris Douglas-Roberts hadn't missed his free throws.

No one will remember that today.

They'll remember the moment when the Jayhawks were down seven with under two minutes to play and the Memphis fans were just starting to get into a groove of a celebration -- and Collins picked off an inbounds pass right under Kansas' basket.

Falling out of bounds to make the save, Collins got the ball to Chalmers and then hopped back into the play, spotting up behind the 3-point line. Chalmers flipped the ball back to Collins and the sophomore swished his only trey of the game.

The bucket twisted the tourniquet around the Tigers' neck, leading to their full-blown gag at the free-throw line and the inevitable overtime stomping by Kansas (the Jayhawks outscored Memphis 12-5 in OT).

"Coach told us at the timeout to go and get a trap and then go for a steal," Collins said. "They didn't cover me well enough, so I was able to get to the ball. That was it, the momentum swung after that play. It changed the whole game."

Ninety seconds later, Rose missed Memphis' fourth consecutive free throw, a little Achilles' heel that turned out to be more important than advertised. After Rose made his second free throw for a 63-60 lead, Collins pushed the ball downcourt as John Calipari screamed "foul" from the bench. The Tigers did swarm Collins as he tried to make the pass to Chalmers, but there was no whistle.

"I thought maybe they fouled me," Collins said with a smirk. "I'm glad they didn't call it."

Instead, Collins made the pass to Chalmers, who swished the 3 to earn little Sherr'Mari Collins a birthday present.

"He can have whatever he wants," Collins smiled. "He'll probably like the basket."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.