A final heave by Tony Young from near midcourt hit the right side of the backboard and ended another terrific season for Southern Illinois (29-7).
"We were very fortunate to win," a drained Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We played a very well-coached, tough basketball team. For us to come out on top makes us feel very good. To beat Southern Illinois, you can't run plays, because they don't let you. You have to trust your players to make plays, and ours did."
The win sends Kansas to its fourth Elite Eight appearance in six seasons, and second with Self, in his fourth season at KU.
The Salukis pride themselves on their tenacious defense. Their practices resemble more of the kid game "kill the man with the ball" than the tactical ones run by most other coaches who have reached this point. They don't wear T-shirts emblazoned with "Floorburn U" for nothing.
They're cerebral, too. If they were grade-school kids told they were getting a pop quiz, they'd smile at the challenge.
Last night, they had a real test in Kansas and came within a whisker of passing.
Kansas was able to break through the SIU pressure early, getting to the basket off the dribble, and hit five shots in the lane to take a 10-2 lead, forcing SIU coach Chris Lowery to call time. The Salukis fought back and took their first lead at 22-21 with 4:47 left in the half. A shot by Jamaal Tatum from the right wing upped it to 24-21.
Six straight points, including two dunks by Darnell Jackson, gave the Jayhawks a 27-24 lead at the break.
It was turning into the kind of game everyone expected. Kansas utilized that dribble penetration, hitting 13 of its 21 field-goal attempts. But the hounding SIU defense forced 10 turnovers and, despite hitting only eight of 29, the Salukis were able to stay close at the break, an important factor when facing an opponent of Kansas' athleticism.
A telling sign at the half was the balanced scoring of the top-ranked Jayhawks, as all nine who played had scored.
Held to two points at the half on 1-for-8 shooting (including 0-for-5 from beyond the arc), Tatum did all he could to give his team the upset, scoring 17 points after intermission, including nine of his team's last 13. But it wasn't to be.
"A loss is a loss," Tatum said. "Just because they're Kansas and we're Southern Illinois, the so-called midmajor, it doesn't matter. We still lost and they still won."
Such simple reasoning can come only from a player on the losing team. Anyone watching this game couldn't help but think Southern Illinois did itself proud, even in losing.
SIU led, 45-41, when Matt Shaw, a game-time decision with a sprained ankle, hit two free throws at 8:09. Six straight by Kansas gave it a 47-45 lead with 6:15 left.
An 18-footer at the top of the key by Tatum gave the Salukis their last lead at 49-48 with 5:18 remaining.
Kansas, which outscored SIU, 42-18, in the paint, kept pounding it inside and was able to forge ahead by 54-51. A Shaw layup at 2:55 drew SIU within one, and then the wheels started to shake.
SIU point guard Bryan Mullins stripped Mario Chalmers on the offensive end, but couldn't convert the contested layup off the steal. Tatum was there for the follow, but it fell short. Chalmers then sank one of two at 2:20 for a 55-53 lead.
Shaw got loose for a wide-open trey at 1:50, but it rimmed out. Jackson then canned two free throws for Kansas before Tatum missed a tough, scooping layup. Julian Wright sank one of two for a 58-53 lead with 1:23 left.
Not surprising, the Salukis had some fight left. Tatum pump-faked Brandon Rush out of the way and hit a trey from the left wing to cut the deficit to 58-56 with 1:10 to go. After Chalmers made a free throw, Tatum hit a miraculous 10-foot fadeaway from the right baseline to bring his team within 59-58 with 46.9 seconds left.
Self then did what any smart coach would. He called the number of his terrifically talented sophomore, Rush.
"Coach called a different play, which was basically me getting the ball and driving it to the hole," said Rush, who finished with a team-high 12 points. "It worked out."
Good thing for Kansas it did.
Tatum barely missed an open three from the top with 10 seconds to go, but it was rebounded by teammate Randal Falker. But the Missouri Valley Conference's defensive player of the year lost his footing and threw the ball away before traveling. Rush scooped up the loose ball and threw ahead to Wright, who was fouled.
Wright missed a foul shot at 2.2, but Young's desperation shot missed the mark.
"I know a lot of people thought we were coming in here to compete with Kansas, but that wasn't what we were here to do," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "We do what we do. We make teams look bad. No matter if it's Kansas or anybody else."
They certainly did that. But Kansas also handed out the ugly. Its defense limited SIU to only 21-for-57 shooting (36.8 percent).
"They've got a great defensive team," said Chalmers, moments after limping up to the dais, looking like a beaten warrior. "It was very tough for us to get into a good rhythm and get easy looks. But we felt like we are a very good defensive team, too. All the talk was their defense matching up with our offense. I think our defense did an excellent job of matching up with them."
In the end, the tough kids from SIU had to leave the court, still fighting, but this time they were fighting tears.
And Kansas headed to the locker room with a look of "Who are these guys?" *