New Orleans — Thomas Robinson left his feet and kept going higher, higher, higher than anyone could have expected an athlete to go so late in such a physical game. He grabbed the defensive rebound and secured it with two hands this time.
Did he really go up that high? Did I just see that? Yes and yes.
The rebound, one of 17 for Robinson in Monday night’s 67-59 national-title-game loss to Kentucky inside the rat-infested Superdome, so perfectly symbolized the 2011-2012 Kansas Jayhawks.
Did they really win an eighth consecutive Big 12 title with a 16-2 record? Did they really make it all the way to the title game? Yes and yes.
Robinson, a unanimous first-team All-American, was the best player on a team to remember, a relentless competitor on a squad that kept driving expectations upward.
Through bloodshot eyes, the players talked about how much it hurt to fall a game short, but they knew they cobbled together a remarkable season, knew how much they had grown.
Junior guard Elijah Johnson came so far in so many areas in his first season as a starter. He grew more aggressive and so under-control on drives to the hoop, finishing strong by protecting the ball with his body. He showed an eagerness to take the big shot and made many of them. And he became so much more comfortable during interviews. (The skills student-athletes hone fielding questions in the NCAA-mandated open locker rooms will serve them well throughout life).
Johnson referenced the team’s attitude coming out of the final media timeout, with KU on a 6-0 run and trailing by nine with 3:52 left and Robinson heading to the free-throw line for two shots. Robinson, such a strong force, the more the game started to test the stamina of others, would make both shots to stretch the run to 8-0 and shrink the deficit to seven points.
“We all came out of the timeout smiling,” Johnson said. “No one could tell us that we were going to lose, except for the scoreboard. That was our mindset. We smiled and realized that, ‘We only have four minutes left to play with each other.’ We just said, ‘Hey, if they’re going to beat us, they’re going to remember us. They’re going to feel the last of us.’”
The more enjoyable a season, the deeper it plays out, the tougher it is for players to kiss it goodbye with a loss. Johnson snapped off a nice analogy to describe the feeling.
“When you get a puppy and you watch that puppy grow up and it dies, that hurts,” Johnson said. “To see something grow up in front of you, to see something develop in front of you, that hurts, especially something that wasn’t supposed to develop into what it developed into. ... I’m proud of this team. I love this team. I’ll remember this team forever.”
He is far from alone in that sentiment.