It was supposed to be the Syracuse freshmen against the Kansas seniors, but in the end it was another freshman and a couple of sophomores who led Syracuse to an 81-78 victory and the school's first NCAA men's basketball championship Monday night in New Orleans.
In the end it wasn't super freshman Carmelo Anthony or his class- and running mate Gerry McNamara who buried the Jayhawks, it was freshman reserve guard Billy Edelin scoring nine points down the stretch, sophomore reserve swingman Josh Pace knifing in for a pair of vital layups and pulling down rebounds in bunches in the second half, sophomore forward Hakim Warrick swooping halfway across the court to block Michael Lee's game-tying three-point attempt with one second left.
There will be a lot of talk about missed free throws by Kansas. The Jayhawks were execrable from the line, making just 12 of 30. But three times they missed a pair of free throws, got the rebound and scored, so their 30 attempts resulted in 18 points, roughly what you'd expect from a team that shoots 67 percent at the stripe. Their free-throw shooting was bad, but it was that unlikely trio that did them in.
In the early going the battle of youth vs. experience looked like no contest. Led by McNamara and Anthony, their freshmen star and superstar, the Orangemen blew Kansas out of the building in the first 15 minutes.
Kansas forward Nick Collison was on his way to a big game, with 11 points and seven rebounds already, but his fellow senior, guard Kirk Hinrich, was struggling, missing his first five shots before hitting a pair of three-pointers, then missing another jumper. Meanwhile Anthony had 10 points and five assists, and McNamara had scored 18 by burying six three-pointers, one shy of the title game record. When Kueth Duany, Syracuse's lone starting senior, hit a three with 5:02 left in the half, he danced his way back to play defense. The Orangemen were cruising, 47-29.
But Duany's celebration was premature. Those bromides about senior leadership being crucial late in the Tournament didn't get to be clichés by being untrue. Kansas climbed to within 11 at the half, and then began trapping on defense. Syracuse didn't come unglued, as you might expect a freshman-led team to do, but the Orangemen did start to look disorganized and outhustled.
Anthony had strained his back in the semifinal win over Texas, and now he looked like he was hurting. He stopped coming to the ball, stopped demanding that the Syracuse offense run through his amazingly sure hands. He had scored on a tip-in about a minute into the second half, and two and a half minutes later he sank a pair of free throws. In between, Kansas finally revved up its running game and poured in 10 straight to pull within three.
After Anthony hit those free throws for a five-point lead, Collison got a chance at the line. He missed the first, then he missed the second. Collison got his own rebound and made a nifty pass to Jeff Graves for the bucket to pull the Jayhawks within three at 57-54. The free-throw misses were the second and third of seven straight for Collison. They were the fifth and sixth missed free throws in a row for Kansas, a streak that would eventually reach 11. The free-throw shooting display may not have cost Kansas the title, but it was a hideous thing to watch.
Two minutes later Anthony hit a three for a 64-58 lead. The phenom had 20 points with more than 13 minutes left. He wouldn't score again. McNamara, still with 18 from his half-dozen three-pointers in the first half, also wouldn't score again. But the Jayhawks were never able to catch the Orangemen. A sophomore wouldn't let 'em.
Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense got almost as much attention as Anthony did coming into the Tournament, but Kansas seemed built to exploit the 2-3 with slashing drives by Hinrich and Keith Langford, the inside play of Collison and Graves, and the three-point shooting of Hinrich and Lee. The Jayhawks did get plenty of inside scoring, but they spent most of the game looking tentative from beyond the arc. When Hinrich wasn't missing threes, he was hesitating, passing up open looks. Kansas was just 4-for-20 shooting three-pointers, a more important failure than their free-throw shenanigans.
Still, Kansas had a chance to tie at the end -- thanks to a pair of missed free throws by Warrick, either of which would have iced the game. Aaron Miles carried the ball to the front court, dribbled to the right wing and passed to Hinrich above the top of the key. Hinrich had had a good look for a game-tying three from about that spot seconds before and missed it. This time he whipped a pass to Lee, wide open in the left corner.
Lee caught the ball with 3.2 seconds left and in one motion went up to shoot. Warrick, who had been under the basket, was starting to move toward Lee but was still in the lane when the ball reached him. He took one more step, then launched himself toward the shooter, blocking the ball out of bounds. An incredible, impossible play.
Kansas still had 1.5 seconds left. Time for one last try. Hinrich came off a screen, took the inbounds pass, dribbled once on the left wing and fired. His shot wasn't close. He'd had to alter his release because of the defender flying out toward him. It was Hakim Warrick again. Two great defensive plays to seal the championship.
Not bad for a guy who's not even a freshman.