All around the Kansas locker room, the moment felt personal.
Markieff Morris had eight turnovers. He sat hunched over with his head lowered, trying to think about the 16 guys who were living the same nightmare.
“They’re my brothers,” Morris said.
He paused for a few seconds in an effort to compose himself.
“I feel like I let them down,” Morris said, starting to sob.
To his left, Thomas Robinson sat clinching his jersey in his hands. He played just six minutes after picking up three quick fouls in the first half.
“I didn’t help my team,” Robinson said.
Across the way, Tyrel Reed was coming to grips with playing his last college game. It was one of his worst, as the Kansas-born sharp-shooter made 1 of 7 just one of seven three-pointers.
“I had wide-open shots that I feel like I’ll knock down nine out of 10 ten times,” Reed said.
After the Jayhawks’ 71-61 loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Tournament’s Southwest Regional final Elite Eight, the easiest thing for each player to do was look in the mirror. A season that seemed destined for a title shot had slipped away, and everyone was busy convincing themselves that it was their fault KU wasn’t heading to its 14th Final Four.
But Brady Morningstar would have nothing of it. Morningstar, the 25-year-old fifth-year senior, had just two points on 1-of-7 one-of-seven shooting. But he wasn’t going to take the blame, and he sure as heck wasn’t going to let any of his teammates do it, either. They had worked too hard and sacrificed too much collectively to make this loss about their individual failings.
“It’s a team game,” Morningstar said. “You don’t sit here and point fingers. I’m not worried about how anybody else played or how I played. As a team, we didn’t play well enough to win the game. That’s how it is.”
It was the team that made just 54 percent (15 of 28) of its free throws, while VCU made 77 percent (17 of 22). It was the team that made 2 of 21 just 10 percent (two of 21) of its three-pointers, while VCU made 48 percent (12 of 25). It was the team that shot a season-low 36 percent from the field and put up a season-low 61 points in the biggest game of the season.
“Hopefully,” Reed said, “this doesn’t define us as a group.”
This loss to VCU, a scrappy team of believers from the Colonial Athletic Association, will define the Jayhawks as chokers in the minds of the masses, and it will go down as one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Kansas finished 35-3, becoming the third team in tournament history (Kentucky last season and KU in 1998) to win that many games and miss out on the Final Four.
For Jayhawk Nation, this is just the latest March disappointment against a no-name school, but it’s probably going to feel worse than Bucknell, Bradley or Northern Iowa. Only three No. 1 seeds have ever lost to a No. 11 seed in the regional final (Kentucky in 1986, and Connecticut in 2006), and the Jayhawks would have faced No. 8 seed Butler on Saturday in Houston for a chance to play either Connecticut or Kentucky, two teams that combined to lose 17 games this season.
“When you put yourself in a position to cash in, you’ve got to take advantage of it,” said KU coach Bill Self, who fell to 1-5 in the Elite Eight. “Bottom line, as much as I’d like to think it, these opportunities don’t happen every year. You’ve got to make the most of them.”
The Jayhawks seemed like they were going to, jumping out to a quick 6-0 lead. VCU made just one of its first five threes but then caught fire, making eight of its next 10. The Rams led 39-21 with 3:53 left in the first half, and KU was in shock.
“That basket really opened up for them,” Self said, “and whatever the legal diameter of a basket is, 18 inches or whatever, it probably looked like it was 24. And our guys may have thought they were shooting at the fair because it was a tight basket.”
The Jayhawks looked like they were going to overcome it, though, shifting the pressure to VCU with a 12-0 run early in the second half. KU pulled to within 46-44 with 13:11 left, but the Jayhawks didn’t wouldn’t get any closer, reverting back to their first-half form the rest of the way.
“In the second half when it was close again, we saw it in our grasp,” Reed said. “We just wanted it so bad. When you want something so bad, and it’s not happening for you, you tend to tighten up a little bit.”
It’s an odd idea — wanting to win a game too much — but even Self thought there was something to it.
“They tried too hard today,” Self said. “The more the ball didn’t go in, the harder we tried. Sometimes, that’s when you need to relax.”
The obituary on the 2010-11 Jayhawks would not be complete without making this point: They cared.
From the beginning, these Jayhawks they were defined by trying to be more than a team. It was “Family Over Everything,” and Morningstar felt so strongly about reminding them of the bond they’d forged that he spoke up as the team mourned in the minutes after returning to its Alamodome locker room. He broke the gloomy silence by telling them that, regardless of the outcome, they’re still family, and they love each other.
“It’s one of the last times we’ll all be together as a team,” Morningstar said, battling tears. “But, you know, that’s sports for you. That’s why they’re so good. You can have the highest highs and the lowest lows.”