The sight of Kentucky on the run or Anthony Davis coming from well outside a camera frame to suddenly block or disrupt a shot was a visual delight. These were extraordinary athletes that somehow came together as a team to compile a remarkable record and a championship title. Blue bloods is a word that gets used often when people talk about anything Kentucky, and the winners on this night certainly were just that.
However, what a team KU brought to battle those Kentucky blue bloods. The hearts that pumped crimson and blue through each of the KU players are off the charts huge. So are two other things hanging a few feet south of those hearts that coach Bill Self often tells the players are as big as it gets. Because of that, I believed until the final minute that somehow KU would win.
Why not believe? Though Big 12 coaches voted KU as co-favorites to win the Big 12 before the season, few truly believed. No one knew that Thomas Robinson would dominate at player of the year levels. Who believed Tyshawn Taylor’s gift for scintillating drives and acrobatic shots would overcome almost all his turnovers? How could Jeff Withey become a shot-blocking wizard? Conner Teahan again for three, no way. Could Travis Releford score? Finally, did anyone really believe that Elijah Johnson would become Mr. Clutch down the stretch and propel the team to the title game? Well, those guys believed. They proved all the doubters wrong right until the final minute Monday night.
Certainly, they made believers out of me. Laura and I, my daughters and our son-in-law have a friendly bracket challenge. We cannot bet anything on any of this, but the winner was the guy that picked KU to win it all. That would be me.
Kentucky fans were everywhere in New Orleans with their “Fear the Brow” shirts, signs and salutes. I told a few to make sure they “Fear the Comeback.” At the half that statement seemed meaningless to most. Even some diehard KU fans I know signaled thumbs down to me or bowed their heads in resignation.
Yet, suddenly the game that looked to be a drawn out processional to the crown for Kentucky became as intense as everyone had hoped for from the two winningest programs in college basketball history. Comebacks and big-time players stepping up at critical times became normal. It did not work out in the end because Kentucky proved itself just a bit better. There is no shame in saying that.
It was my privilege to walk some blocks with Bill Self after the KU coach received the much-deserved Naismith Coach of the Year Award Sunday morning. As we walked, he turned to me and said, “Can you believe we are actually here getting ready to play the title game?” That was a question, but he was making a statement because he added, “I have never seen a tougher group of guys with so much fight in them.”
An Ohio State photographer, after KU’s comeback against the Buckeyes in the Saturday semi-final game, wondered how big a lead a team needed to keep KU at bay. Maybe thirteen points with 1:30 left might be safe is what I told the photographer and then Self as we walked.
“Well, we better not get down by 13 to Kentucky,” Self said laughing. “We might not be able to come back, but I really believe we are going to play great.” In the end, he was right on both counts. The KU team played great and did all they could to make it happen. KU did not lose, they only were beaten. That is what happens when two extraordinary teams meet. It was a pleasure to be there to photograph the game with Laura.