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March 12, 2006
DALLAS - The Kansas Jayhawks have only lost once in the last two months. Now that they've avenged that and won the Big 12 tournament, the KU kids are heading into the NCAA tournament believing they can do pretty much anything.
With freshman Mario Chalmers scoring 15 points and fellow freshman Julian Wright making the game-turning steal and dunk in the final minutes, the 17th-ranked Jayhawks handled with ease the big-game pressure that rattled them in Austin two weeks ago and beat No. 8 Texas 80-68 in the finals of the conference tournament Sunday.
''We finally proved to people that we can win tough games,'' said Brandon Rush, Kansas' ''other'' star newcomer - the one who became the first freshman to make the coaches' all-Big 12 team. ''We wanted to prove we were the best team in the Big 12. This gives us momentum going into the tournament ''
Kansas (25-7) rolls into the NCAAs having won 15 of 16 games. The surge earned the Jayhawks the fourth seed in the Oakland Regional and a first-round game Friday against 13th-seeded Bradley in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Their only loss since mid-January was an 80-55 wipeout at Texas on Feb. 25 that players consider almost a fluke because so many things went wrong.
This time, so many things went right that coach Bill Self called it ''the best we probably played all year.''
Kansas won its first Big 12 title since taking the first three, a run that ended in 1999. The Jayhawks had only been back to the finals once, in 2002.
More important is sticking around the NCAAs longer than last year, when they were bounced by 14th-seeded Bucknell in the first round.
''If we play like we did the last few days we'll be fine,'' center C.J. Giles said. ''We feel real confident. We're not going to settle for the Big 12 championship.''
For Texas (27-6), the loss didn't affect its spot in the NCAA field. The Longhorns still got the second seed they were expecting and a first-round game in Dallas. Playing in the Atlanta Regional, they open Friday against 15th-seeded Penn.
''You're always going to be disappointed when you don't win,'' Texas coach Rick Barnes said. ''It's over and done with. Our No. 1 goal now is the NCAA tournament. We're one of 65 teams and we hope to be the last one standing.''
When the Jayhawks knew they were getting another shot at the Longhorns, several players said they were eager to show how much they've grown up in only a few weeks. They didn't need long to prove it.
Rush, who was 1-for-8 with three points in the previous meeting, opened this game with two 3-pointers. Kansas went on to hit a season-best 12, on 24 attempts.
Although the Jayhawks controlled most of the game, the Longhorns hung in until the end despite a poor game from big man LaMarcus Aldridge. Kenton Paulino led Texas with 19 points, including five 3-pointers, and conference player of the year P.J. Tucker had 16 points and eight rebounds.
Aldridge already was struggling when he got into foul trouble. He finished with five points on 1-of-5 shooting, five rebounds and one block, after having 18 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in the previous game against Kansas.
''That first game, he got the shots he wanted,'' Kansas' Russell Robinson said. ''This time, we disrupted his rhythm and got him in foul trouble. We made him take shots he didn't want to take.''
The Jayhawks went ahead for good on two free throws by Rush. On Texas' ensuing possession, the 6-foot-8 Wright met Longhorns guard A.J. forward at midcourt, reached around him and poked the ball away, then took it hard to the rim for an electrifying tomahawk dunk for a 67-63 lead with 5:40 left.
''That was the turning point right there,'' said Kansas senior Jeff Hawkins, who made his first four 3s and finished with 13 points. ''That's when we knew we had them.''
Actually, Texas already was falling apart.
After a basket with 10:15 left, the Longhorns didn't get another until a dunk by Brad Buckman with 1:00 left. They missed seven shots and had three turnovers along the way, letting a 57-55 lead turn into an 11-point deficit.
''That last five minutes, we didn't tough it out as we should have,'' Tucker said.
Wright struck again with 36 seconds left, icing the victory with a 360-degree dunk in open court following a blocked 3-pointer on the other end.
Chalmers had the honor of dribbling out the clock while his teammates were already celebrating. Eager to join them, he slammed the ball down with about a second left and ran over. Soon after, he was named the tournament's most outstanding player. Wright joined him on the all-tournament team, as did Texas' Tucker and Aldridge.
The Longhorns lost for the second time in their last five games and fell to 0-3 in Big 12 tournament finals, having also lost in 2001 and 2004.
Still, Texas will head into the NCAA tournament trying to follow its football and baseball teams as national champions; no school has ever held all three crowns at the same time.? Play Rivals.com Bracket Battles! Leagues are forming now!