Sports Nut

My Kingdom for a Free Throw

Kansas seizes the NCAA title thanks to a dramatic three-pointer—and Memphis’ misses at the line.

Kansas’ Sherron Collins

As a Syracuse alumnus, I feel the pain of Chris Douglas-Roberts, the star Memphis guard who missed three crucial free throws in the final moments of last night’s NCAA Championship game. In the 1987 title game, Derrick Coleman blew a freebie just before Keith Smart hit a last-second jumper to give Indiana a one-point victory over my Orange. It’s probably no consolation to Douglas-Roberts, but 21 years later, everyone remembers Smart’s floating base-line jumper; nobody remembers Coleman’s brick from the line. This year, Mario Chalmers canned the memorable shot, a three-pointer from the top of the key to force overtime. Given five extra minutes, Kansas went on to win the championship, 75-68, denying the nation a chance to watch Buddha-like Memphis reserve Pierre Niles celebrate under the falling confetti.

It was a classic title game just two months after a Super Bowl for the ages, both welcome respites after a run of snoozers in the trophy games. Chalmers’ shot wasn’t quite as extraordinary as Eli-to-Tyree, but it was a shining moment in a tournament largely devoid of thrills and was the capper to an improbable KU rally from nine points down with just more than two minutes left. Chalmers took a lunging handoff from fellow guard Sherron Collins, who sprawled to the floor after barely getting the ball away. Memphis Coach John Calipari said his team had been trying to foul Collins—a mystifyingly underutilized tactic when teams lead by three with seconds to play—but there was no whistle, and Memphis guard Derrick Rose pulled his hands up in the universal signal for “Please don’t call a foul on me, ref!” Had he really been trying to foul, or was Calipari making excuses after the fact?

The handoff-and-swish has become the college buzzer beater of choice in the last few years—recall the long-range basket Ty Rogers hit for Western Kentucky to beat Drake back in the first round, and the shot Ohio State’s Ron Lewis made last year to send the Buckeyes to overtime against Xavier. Chalmers, who also hit four big free throws down the stretch, has now restored the luster to Alaska hoops—he’s a native of Anchorage—after the horrific performance by Duke’s Trajan Langdon in the 1999 final (there’s a last, obligatory shot at the Devils to hold you until next season).

Another questionable bit of coaching from Calipari: There were still 2.1 seconds left when Chalmers tied the game. Memphis had a timeout remaining but instead settled for a hurried heave from midcourt. That exact amount of time—2.1 seconds—was enough for Grant Hill and Christian Laettner. Maybe it would’ve been the magic number for Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose, too, if Coach Cal had bothered to call a play.

It’s unfortunate that Douglas-Roberts will go down as the goat. He’s a brilliant, unique player—the best I can do by way of comparison is to call him a whirling, slippery amalgam of Stacy Augmon, Richard Hamilton, and George Gervin (although nobody’s calling Douglas-Roberts “Iceman” this morning). CDR can score with either hand, is almost impossible to keep out of the lane, and throws up shots from strange arm angles that can’t be blocked. He led all scorers on Monday night with 22 points, and he was the best player on the floor until the final minute of regulation.

The Jayhawks’ late-game rally required a series of improbable events (though, as Kansas fan Bill James will tell you, the lead was never safe). Just as big as the missed free throws was a botched pass on an inbounds play with two minutes left. Collins stole the ball and drained a 3-pointer, cutting the Memphis lead from a daunting seven to a manageable four. And while Chalmers will be immortalized on YouTube, it was Darrell Arthur who won it for the Jayhawks. The long-limbed sophomore hit several big shots, including a tough fallaway shot to pull Kansas within two with a minute left. With 20 points and 10 rebounds, Arthur was the best of a rotating series of big bodies that allowed KU to control the first half.

Memphis might have cruised to victory if Derrick Rose, Memphis’ freshman point guard, hadn’t been stymied for the game’s first 30 minutes, thanks to outstanding defense by Kansas’ guards and, perhaps, the deleterious effect of Rose’s  eating too many gummi bears. The powerful and speedy Rose came to life midway through the second half, taking over the game with a series of strong drives and pullup jumpers. (The “controversial” bank shot to beat the shot-clock buzzer was anything but, by the way: Even before replay confirmed it, it was clear that Rose’s foot was inside the line when he lifted for the shot. Taking the point off the scoreboard loomed huge in a game that went into OT, but the call was correct.)

Billy Packer’s analysis on CBS was strong as usual. He identified early on that setting screens for Rose was a fool’s errand, serving only to bring extra defenders who could “hedge” on him, taking the Tigers out of their usually effective dribble-drive motion offense. He also made a good point about Kansas’ big men being coached to keep space between themselves and the basket on passes over the top so they can have room to operate after the catch. But Packer has to stop with the historical analogies. He actually stated during the extra stanza that Kansas knows what it’s like to play in overtime because the school played three overtimes in the national championship game in1957 (and lost, by the way).

If Packer had to dip into history, he should have mentioned Darius Washington. He was a freshman for the Tigers in 2005 when, with Memphis down by one, he bricked a pair of free throws with no time remaining in the Conference USA tournament final. As a result, Memphis didn’t make the Big Dance, and Washington crumpled to the court, inconsolable. Washington, who toiled in NBA D-League before landing in Greece, will forever be linked to those missed free throws. Douglas-Roberts and Rose, who both clanked shots down the stretch on Monday night, will both soon be making clutch shots in the NBA, perhaps as early as this year.

Calipari insisted all season that criticism of his squad’s poor free-throw shooting was misplaced, because his guys made them when it counted. Not this time. Against most other teams, the Tigers would have won, despite the misses, but the battle-tested Jayhawks (who survived a tight game against Davidson in the regional final) squeezed through that tiny crack. In the crucible of the final game, Memphis’ soft Conference USA schedule and seasonlong struggles at the stripe finally caught up to it. Despite an otherwise magnificent season, that will be this team’s legacy.