LAHAINA, Hawaii — For the Kansas Jayhawks and the fans who followed them across the Pacific Ocean this week, Tuesday night's 72-56 win over UCLA played out like a Hawaiian fairytale.
A third straight victory over the equally blue-blooded Bruins in as many seasons. A successful marriage proposal at halftime that made a Kansas girl's every dream come true as the sun set outside the Lahaina Civic Center. And a date set with the Duke Blue Devils tonight in the EA Sports Maui Invitational championship game.
A showdown with the Blue Devils, after all, was the hope of every Jayhawk who decided it would be worth it to spend the Thanksgiving holiday on this majestic island — even the Big Kahuna himself.
"We don't get a chance to play them very often," KU coach Bill Self said. "I will bet (tonight's) game will have as good of an atmosphere as there's been in this tournament."
Kansas hasn't played the Blue Devils since beating them in the 2003 Sweet 16 in Anaheim, Calif., and the all-time series sits at 6-2 in Duke's favor.
The 14th-ranked Jayhawks (3-1) will get their shot at No. 6 Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski because of a dominant defensive showing in the first half against the struggling Bruins and a 23-point, career-high performance by KU junior guard Elijah Johnson, who made 4 of 8 three-pointers and announced himself as the lead running mate of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.
"The game was slow for me today," Johnson said. "I felt like I had to help Tyshawn and T-Rob out and take pressure off of them. I just wanted to control the team today. Ty had to sit out at a point (with foul trouble), and I wanted to let them know ther are still some leaders out there on the floor."
Kansas will need Johnson to show up again tonight to knock off the Blue Devils, who looked as menacing as ever in beating Michigan 82-75 on Tuesday and have never lost a game in this event — Duke is a perfect 12-0 with four Maui titles.
To meet Duke, Kansas had to hold off a UCLA team desperate for a big win after losing to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State already this season. In the opening minutes, it looked as if the Jayhawks weren't going to let the Bruins even throw a punch in this bout, taking a 14-2 lead. The Jayhawks increased their lead to 43-26 at halftime, holding the Bruins to 27 percent shooting from the field.
At that point, Hawaii native A.C. Regier walked out to half-court with his girlfriend, Tina Webster, a Hawaii resident from Overland Park and a diehard KU fan, for what was supposed to be a halftime entertainment game. Soon, the game stopped, and Regier got down on one knee and proposed to Webster. Shocked, she said yes.
"He couldn't have made it more special," Webster said. "I'm still shaking."
It seemed like it was going to be that kind of Maui day for the Jayhawks — relaxed, romantic and storybook. Kansas took a 20-point lead early in the second half, but it forgot that basketball is a game best played for 40 minutes.
KU is still inexperienced and suddenly looked like it as the Bruins got hot from three (they made five of seven threes in the second half). When UCLA's Jerime Anderson hit a deep one with Taylor in his face to pull the Bruins to within 57-52, a building that once again felt like Allen Fieldhouse Pacific went quiet. The celebration was put on hold, and it was suddenly two traditional powers testing the other.
Leading 61-56, Kansas reverted back to its earlier form and closed out the Bruins with an 11-0 run. Justin Wesley made one of two free throws, Taylor hit a floater from the baseline and Releford drove to the basket for an uncontested layup to put KU up 10 and ice the game.
After all of that, the tenor of the night would remain the same, with a chorus of the Rock Chalk chant raining down on the Jayhawks in the final minute.
Up next? Duke.
"We knew coming into this tournament that, if we wanted to win it, we had to go through Duke," said Robinson, who had a double-double 15 points and 10 rebounds. "For me to be a part of this game, Kansas-Duke, I don't know any player that wouldn't be excited."