NEW ORLEANS — A store near Bourbon Street sold “Kentucky 2012 NCAA champions” T-shirts on Monday afternoon, hours before the basketball game tipped off at the Superdome.
Kansas fans looked at the shirt and smirked. A Kentucky fan said, “That’s a little early, but I like the thought.” Turns out, the T-shirt wasn’t premature at all.
Kentucky confirmed season-long predictions that the Wildcats rule college basketball with a 67-59 win over Kansas. The Wildcats led by 14 at halftime and by double figures most of the second half. Kansas, which made a habit of rallying in the second half in the NCAA Tournament, got within five points with 1:37 to play — and no closer.
“We knew we were playing the best team in the country,” said KU junior Chris Powell, from St. Louis. “They were great. We almost came back.”
KU cut the lead to 59-52 with 3:52 to play, and every loyal Jayhawk fan remembered their team rallying to tie coach John Calipari’s Memphis team from nine down in the final 2:12 of the 2008 title game.
When Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis missed his first free throw with 1:11 remaining and the Wildcats up 62-57, Calipari watchers had to feel they had seen this drama. Davis made the second and a Jayhawk turnover gave the ball back to Wildcats. Kentucky made its free throws for Calipari in the final minute, and he won his first NCAA title and the school’s eighth.
Fans can welcome the Jayhawks back home today. The doors open at Allen Fieldhouse at 6:30 p.m.. The team is scheduled to arrive at 7.
For the Jayhawks, the loss ended a run that surprised many. Coach Bill Self had to revamp his lineup after last season and the Jayhawks, while ranked No. 13 in the preseason poll, weren’t near the top of the list of title contenders. KU, playing in its 15th Final Four, is 3-6 in NCAA title games.
“No one had us winning,” said Ryan Holland, a KU freshman from Holland, Mich. “You’ve got to love what Coach Self has done this season.”
Forward Thomas Robinson cried as the Jayhawks filed off the floor. Kentucky players celebrated, as confetti and streamers dropped from the Superdome scoreboard. The Kentucky band played “My Old Kentucky Home,” the school’s traditional victory song and it seemed like most of the crowd of 70,913 stayed to watch and cheer.
“When you care so much, it’s supposed to hurt,” Self said. “You can’t get here unless you care, and these kids certainly cared.”
The Jayhawk student section emptied quickly after the game, with most of them preparing for a long drive home. Friends had tried to convince Connor Crist, a freshman from Marysville, to stay in Lawrence and watch the game on Massachusetts Street. But Crist made the 17-hour drive to New Orleans with no regrets.
“If you’ve got the chance to do something like this freshman year, you’ve got to take it,” he said. “It was fantastic.”
Fans in the KU student section stood 30 minutes before the game. Two women wore Jayhawk headdresses. One man wore a wig of red, curly hair. A sign read, “No. It’s spelled KU. Beat Dyslexia.” Close by, one read “Kansas: We invented basketball.” Another read “We Wuv Withey.”
On the opposite baseline, Kentucky students countered with “Couches Burning Soon,” “Killing Two Birds with One Jones,” and “Bird Hunting.”
Both student sections performed a flash mob before the game. Crist said students received an e-mail with instructions on Sunday. They practiced before the game.
The Fray sang the national anthem and soon trended on Twitter, two spots behind NCAA Finals and ahead of Anthony Davis.
KU students threw confetti as the starters were introduced. The Jayhawk mascot stretched near the foul line. The Wildcat mascot, wearing a robe and boxing gloves, shadow-boxed and pranced around under one basket.