NEW ORLEANS - When the road to the Final Four, ends there is only one exit that leads a team to confetti, net clipping, an official NCAA trophy, a $30,000 crystal basketball and One Shining Moment.
The team that finds that exit blocked continues, metaphorically, on the highway, driving on an endless trip fueled by woulda, shoulda, coulda memories and what if moments.
Kansas will find itself driving ceaselessly thinking about Monday's game. The Jayhawks weren't supposed to be playing for the national championship and they certainly weren't expected to win. They didn't. Kentucky's young and length was too much for KU as the Wildcats won the school's eighth national championship with a 67-59 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"When you care so much about something and it doesn't happen it really hurts," said senior guard Tyshawn Taylor. "That's how it's gonna feel for the next few days. "We've been fighting all year and we fought tonight. We were right there with a great team. They played their hearts out like we did."
"We didn't lose, we got beat," Kansas coach Bill Self said.
Nine years ago in the Superdome, Kansas lost to Syracuse 81-78. The Jayhawks missed 12 of 30 free throws in that game. Against Kentucky, Kansas was 22 of 62 from the field (35.5 percent). Of its 65 possessions, 18 ended with nothing despite getting the ball to the rim. Kentucky had 11 blocks.
"Most of those were altered," Self said of the close-range misses. "It's hard to score over length. We tried to take it in there. We play inside out. That's how we play."
And that's how Kentucky plays. The Wildcats have just one senior and all of their starters played 29 or more minutes. Kentucky (38-2) made 53 percent of its shots in the first half and had just enough scoring in the second half to keep Kansas (32-7) at bay.
"This is one of those games that's gonna haunt us," KU's Jeff Withey said. "We had the chance to win this game. We were so close."
Indeed, despite trailing by 18 points late in the first half and 14 at halftime, Kansas made its patented second-half surge. A 13-2 run pulled Kansas within 62-57 with 1:37. But the Jayhawks scored on just one of its last possessions while Kentucky made five of seven free throws.
Freshman Anthony Davis, the national player of the year, was named the Final Four's most outstanding player. At 6-foot-10, Davis has elastic arms and springs in his feet. Against Kansas, he had 16 rebounds, six blocks ... and just six points. It's safe to assume that a Final Four most outstanding player has never scored six points in the title game.
"He definitely impacted the game on the defensive end," said the Jayhawks' Thomas Robinson, who had 18 points and 17 rebounds but missed 11 of 17 shot attempts.
Davis set the NCAA freshman single-season record for blocked shots. His rejections plus his presence turned Kansas timid. The Jayhawks had 33 first half possessions and 11 of those resulted in shots at the rim that produced zero points. It's not a coincidence that KU also shot 33 percent in the first half.
Let's say Kansas had scored on seven of those 11 rim runs; that 14 points would have been handy for a team that found itself trailing 41-27 at the break.
The scoreboard didn't start tilting Kentucky's way until just over seven minutes remained in the first half. That's when the three-ball appeared for the Wildcats. Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller made Kentucky's first 3-pointers and suddenly Big Blue had a 37-21 lead with 3:47 remaining in the first half.
Not all of how Davis impacted the game showed up in the box score. He forced KU's Elijah Johnson to travel when Johnson was attempting a 3-pointer in front of the Kansas bench with 24 seconds remaining. As the official's whistle blew, Johnson swished the three. Kansas trailed 65-59 at the time.
"I saw him leave Jeff and come at me but I didn't think he'd make it all the way out there," Johnson said. "Unbelievable play."
Two possessions before that, with Kansas trailing 63-57, Taylor broke free on a back door cut and Johnson's pass found him on the baseline. However, freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stayed with Taylor and blocked his reverse layup.
"Made an unbelievable play," said Taylor, who finished with a team-high 19 points. I thought I had it. He didn't quit on the play. His length, you know, is something that you can't really teach. So him not giving up, then him using his length, he made an unbelievable play."
Kansas limited Kentucky to seven field goals and forced six turnovers in the second half. The Wildcats were just 2-of-12 after intermission and Kansas trailed 48-38 with 11 minutes to play. That's when Lamb, the game's high scorer with 22, made KU's mountain to climb too high.
On consecutive possession, the 6-4 sophomore worked himself open and nailed 3-pointers to restore Kentucky's lead to 16. The Wildcats made just two more field goals but they had enough of a cushion.
"That was huge," Self said. "You know, really defensively, other than those two possessions, we can't guard 'em any better second half."
When it was 0:00, Kentucky had its eighth national championship and Kansas had lost in the title game for the sixth time (tied with Duke for the most championship game losses). Johnson was one of the last Kansas players to leave the raised court. He was crying, his hands clasped on his head and paper streamers from the post-game celebration stuck to his body.
"From start to finish, there's been no team I've been around improved this much," Self said. There's been no team I've been around compete this hard, there's been no team I've been around that was able to take whatever situation dealt them and respond to it favorably.
"I love this team. They gave me everything they had. I think they maxed out on their effort. As a coach, that makes you pretty proud."