Southern Illinios coach Chris Lowery said before the game that his team had three basic goals against No. 1 seed Kansas in the West regional semifinals Thursday night -- keep the score in the 50s or low 60s, keep the Jayhawks from getting on a running, dunking scoring spree, and reach the five-minute mark with a reasonable chance to win. The fourth-seeded Salukis accomplished all three goals, but they didn't quite pull off the most important task. The Jayhawks managed to hang on for a 61-58 win that left them one victory away from the Final Four.

It wasn't exactly the Jayhawks' finest performance. They committed 18 turnovers and missed nine of their 19 free throws, which nearly left the door open wide enough for Southern Illinois to slip through. But in the end, Kansas was simply too talented, too athetic, too long-limbed for the Salukis to overcome. At one point Southern Illinois forward Randal Falker was wide open underneath for what looked like an easy dunk, but before he could rise for the shot, three Kansas big men -- Brandon Rush, Julian Wright and Darrell Arthur -- had their long arms above the rim, and Falker had no shot. Rush also provided the final points of the night on a graceful drive with 23.6 seconds left, but it was the Jayhawks' defense that ultimately sealed the game. After a Southern Illinois timeout with 17.8 seconds left to set up a three-point attempt, Kansas simply wouldn't let the Salukis get a good look at the basket. With the 6-foot-6 and the 6-8 Wright harrassing guards on the perimeter, the best that the Salukis could get was a forced three by Jamaal Tatum. He missed it, and although Falker corralled the rebound, he threw the pass away when he couldn't find anyone open with 2.2 seconds left, and, the the Jayhawks were on their way to the Final Four.

Rush's game is a thing of beauty. The Kansas forward seems to glide through the air, taking off from the foul line and finishing with short finger rolls. When Rush is on, he looks like an NBA player who wandered into a college game. His only flaw is that like many players to whom the game seems to come easily, he sometimes disappears. That happened for brief stretches against Southern Illinois, which helped the Salukis stay in the game, but when his team really needed him, Rush was there, with crucial buckets near the end, including the floater with Kansas up 59-58 that provided the final margin of victory. The way Rush took it to the basket and rose up over his defender for the shot, he looked absoutely unstoppable. The Jayhawks only wish he would look that way more consistently.

Kansas guard Russell Robinson and Southern Illinois' Tatum crashed into each other chasing a loose ball, which went out of bounds. It wasn't clear who had touched it last, but the officials awarded it to the Salukis. Kansas coach Bill Self smiled and said "good call" to one of the refs. Then he turned toward his bench. "No it wasn't," he said. ... But Southern Illinois seemed to get the worst of the missed calls. Two shot clock violation calls went against them, apparently in error. That caused one Southern Illinois fan to shout from the stands. "Hey ref, you must be a 16 seed," he said.

Southern Illinois tends to make teams play ugly, and that's what they did to the Jayhawks. In some ways, the game was good preparation for Kansas' next game, because both of their potential opponents, UCLA and Pitt, play the kind of grinding, physical defense that the Salukis did. The rap on Kansas has always been that they're not tough enough to survive those kinds of games. The Jayhawks proved that they can survive one, at least, but it's doubtful that they'll be able to do it again, against a more talented team than the one they faced on Thursday. Look for Kansas' season to end on Saturday.

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