SAN JOSE, Calif. - The Kansas Jayhawks knew they had to abandon the beautiful game they usually play to beat Southern Illinois. The Jayhawks admit they don’t like winning ugly — but they like losing even less.
When the Salukis slowed their NCAA tournament run to a crawl, Brandon Rush and his Kansas teammates stooped down into the grit for a win that put them on the brink of the Final Four.
Rush scored 12 points without missing a shot, and Kansas eked out a 61-58 victory over Southern Illinois in the West Regional semifinals Thursday night. Kansas advanced to face UCLA, a 64-55 winner over Pittsburgh, on Saturday.
Darrell Arthur and Russell Robinson scored nine points apiece to help the Jayhawks (33-4) barely avoid yet another Saluki surprise and another disappointing exit from the tournament.
Kansas went into the locker room bickering and muttering at Southern Illinois’ tenacity, yet still won its 14th straight game by nursing a small lead through the final minutes against a defense that made the Jayhawks’ future NBA stars work exceptionally hard for every basket.
“It shows that we can win whatever the circumstances are,” said Kansas guard Mario Chalmers, who scored just nine points. “Everyone knows we like an uptempo game in the 80s, but we can take our time and slow it down with the best of them, too.”
When Tony Young missed a desperate 3-point attempt from half-court at the buzzer, Kansas dodged its second straight tournament loss at the hands of the Missouri Valley Conference, which takes the “mid” out of mid-major with each passing year. Bradley beat the Jayhawks last season, but Kansas advanced to face the winner of UCLA’s late game against Pittsburgh.
Southern Illinois decisively won the matchup’s clash of styles, forcing a deliberate tempo on the high-flying Jayhawks while keeping the possessions long and the score low. The Salukis’ defensive aggression and offensive rebounding were complemented by just enough big shots from its struggling scorers to keep it close.
It was elemental basketball, and Kansas put all the elements together.
“Whoever plays Southern isn’t going to look good offensively,” Self said. “It just isn’t going to happen. ... I was disappointed how some guys handled the heat, but when the game was on the line, we handled it pretty well.”
Jamaal Tatum scored 19 points in his final college game for the fourth-seeded Salukis (29-7), who couldn’t get the break they needed to reach the round of eight for the first time in school history with just their second loss in 17 games.
Julian Wright’s free throw with 1:23 left put Kansas up 58-53, but Tatum hit a 3-pointer moments later. Chalmers hit a free throw, and Tatum added another jumper to cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 59-58.
But Rush confidently drove the lane with 25 seconds left and flicked home a basket with the poise that might someday make him the best of his three basketball-playing brothers.
Rush’s layup provided the game’s final points, but Tatum missed a chance to tie it on a 3-pointer with 8 seconds left.
“The shot I took is a shot I’ve practiced numerous times in the gym at night (and) in between classes,” Tatum said. “It felt good. I don’t know what to say.”
Randal Falker got the rebound for Southern Illinois, but lost the ball. Wright then missed two potential clinching free throws, but Young couldn’t hit his fifth 3-pointer of the night on the run, sending Kansas into a subdued, relieved celebration.
Tatum, the MVC’s player of the year, shook off a 1-for-8 first half with an outstanding second half. He particularly embarrassed Chalmers, hounding the Jayhawks’ high-profile guard and stripping the ball from him at least twice.
Kansas entered last weekend’s opening rounds in Chicago as a popular pick to win it all after its roster packed with NBA prospects lost just twice since Dec. 2. The Jayhawks lived up to that billing in a fluid second-round win over Kentucky — but Southern Illinois presented a defensive challenge that few teams had been able to overcome this season.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“We do what we do to everybody, no matter what’s on the front of their jersey,” Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery said. “I’m disappointed in the final result, but I’m very proud of our guys.”
Matt Shaw scored nine points for Southern Illinois on a sprained ankle — but he also missed an open shot in the final minutes.
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