Calipari Learns From Mistakes, Earns Championship

By Blake Schuster

New Orleans, La. — It was happening again. Down by nine, to John Calipari and against a seemingly unbeatable team, Kansas made its run. 

But in the Jayhawks 67-59 national championship loss to Kentucky, it wasn’t a miracle Jayhawk comeback as it was in 2008 — although it felt similar — this time was about Calipari, and the demons he finally exorcised.

Four years ago with Calipari’s Memphis team up nine with 2:12 left to play, Bill Self pulled out one of the sweetest wins of his career, downing the Tigers in overtime. This time Calipari’s Kentucky team took the lead early in the first half and never gave it up despite the never say die attitude the Jayhawks posed.

“We definitely felt like we could battle back,” Connor Teahan, who was a member of the Kansas team that defeated Memphis, said. “If we could get in a situation like [2008] they hadn’t experienced anything like that.”

If Kansas wanted a chance to beat Kentucky they needed to force the Wildcats to take bad shots. The problem was no matter where Kentucky was shooting from the shots seemed to fall, hitting 53% by the end of the first half. If that weren’t bad enough for the Jayhawks, the Wildcats were beating Kansas to the bulk of the boards, which played a major role in the 41-27 lead Kentucky held at intermission.

Thomas Robinson was held to three conversions on 11 shot attempts and no Kansas player had more than eight points. But Kansas had been in this position all tournament, just never against a team as loaded with talent as Kentucky.

“What killed us was in transition,” Bill Self said. “They controlled the offensive boards, and drove it pretty good.”

It came as no surprise when Kansas started chipping away at the 14-point lead, but a Terrance Jones dunk derailed the Kansas run from gaining speed early on in the second half. It was a small play in the grand scheme of things, but it was a microcosm of the game. Anthony Davis took a jumper from about five feet out that hit the backboard and flung off. Thomas Robinson was the closest to the basket and snagged the rebound while the rest of the Jayhawks started up-court to set up the offense. As Robinson looked for a teammate to toss an outlet pass Davis’ lengthy arms reached in and popped the ball out of Robinson’s clutch. Jones gobbled up the loose ball and slammed it home. Momentum and a 46-30 lead favored Kentucky.

Kansas had nine turnovers, was blocked eleven times, and couldn’t establish their season-long dominant post game while Kentucky posted double-digits off Kansas turnovers. But the Jayhawks didn’t stop chipping away, going on a 27-16 run. With just under four minutes left Kansas was down nine points, with John Calipari and his near NBA-ready team awaiting the Jayhawk’s final push — again.

Powered by Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, Kansas stormed back into contention cutting the lead to six with free throws and threes — Kentucky weathered it all, answering every momentum turning shot that the Jayhawks knocked down with their own.

“At the under four timeout I called the guys over and said ‘we were down nine with two minutes left in ’08, we’ve got plenty of time,” Self said. “We thought the pressure would obviously shift on them. We almost got it there.”

Desperation set in. With the clock winding down on a storybook season, Kansas began fouling and unlike in 2008 Calipari’s team stroked each pressure filled free throw.

The coach who claims he never once looked at footage from the Mario’s Miracle was able to correct his one falter that had separated him from the elite college instructors. He got his team to come through in crunch time.

“I’m glad it’s done,” Calipari said after. “Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be.”

But for Jayhawks such as Robinson, Taylor, and Teahan no time remains to become a better college player. Even though Robinson is a junior, having to take care of his family  — and now having the means to do so by entering the NBA draft — will trump whatever fortune he might have brought back to Lawrence.

“We just didn’t have the mojo like we did back then,” Self said.

This time, Calipari did.

 

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