NEW ORLEANS -- As the sound of fireworks blasted and Kentucky's players began celebrating on the Superdome court, Kansas' Elijah Johnson crouched silently near the sideline, his jersey coated with some of the celebratory multi-colored streamers raining from above. Eventually his body went limp, nearly falling to the ground. Teammate Travis Releford picked up the sobbing guard by his shoulder and physically escorted him off the court.
"I felt like someone stabbed me in my chest," he said in front of his locker afterward. "I felt like I couldn't breathe. It killed me. I've been working on this since October."
He and his Jayhawks teammates had spent those five-plus months building toward this night, surprising many by reaching Monday's national championship game against Kentucky. For 35 minutes, the supremely talented Wildcats seem poised to deliver a humbling ending to Kansas' run. They built an early double-digit lead and stayed there most of the way. As late as the 4:58 mark, Kentucky led 59-44.
Somehow, with 23 seconds left, the Jayhawks had a chance to make it a one-possession game.
"I love our team. We fight," said Johnson after Kansas ultimately fell 67-59. "A lot of teams would have given up if they were down 14 at halftime. But that's what we came to do."
They thought, even after trailing by as many as 18 points, despite All-America Thomas Robinson struggling most of the night to make a basket and Kentucky guards Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague draining threes, that they had another second-half comeback in them. Just like they came back from 19 to beat archrival Missouri in late February, just like they erased double-digit deficits against Purdue, N.C. State and Ohio State earlier in this tournament, the Jayhawks believed they would pull this off, too.
"I don't think we felt it was over at all," said guard Conner Teahan. "It felt like we were in it from the 15-minute mark, the 10-minute mark. We were chipping away. It felt like we were going to make a run."
They did, albeit in spurts. And just like earlier in the tournament, it started with defense. Remarkably, for their third straight game (the Elite Eight against North Carolina, the Final Four against Ohio State and the title game against Kentucky), the Jayhawks held a top-flight opponent under 30 percent shooting in the second half. (The Wildcats hit 7-of-26 shots in the half, for 26.9 percent.)
Senior guard Tyshawn Taylor provided the first offensive spark, after Kentucky had gone up 59-44. On consecutive possessions, he sunk a three -- his first of the entire tournament, spanning 21 attempts -- then, after a Jeff Withey block of Wildcats star Anthony Davis, made a lay-up on the other end, drew a foul from Lamb and hit the free throw with 4:17 left. That cut Kentucky's lead to single digits, 59-50 for the first time since the 8:16 mark of the first half.
At the under-four television timeout, coach Bill Self delivered a little history lesson. Four years earlier, he told them, Kansas trailed Memphis by nine points with 2:12 left in the title game. Compared to that, the Jayhawks had plenty of time.
"We've only got four minutes left to play with each other," Johnson said of the timeout. "If they're going to beat us, they're going to feel us first."
A three by Johnson shortly thereafter, followed by a pair of free throws by Robinson, cut the lead to five, 62-57, with 1:37 left. Kentucky's Davis made one of two free throws to go back up 63-57 with 1:11 left.
Coming out of an ensuing Wildcats timeout, Kansas ran a perfectly scripted play. Johnson saw Taylor with a free path to the basket and fed him a back-door pass. He thought for sure it would end up in an easy dunk for Taylor. But Kentucky's length had bothered the Jayhawks all night, and when Taylor tried to go up and under, Wildcats guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist caught up just in time to block Taylor's shot and force a turnover.
"He made an unbelievable play," said Taylor. "I thought I had it. I should have finished on the same side, but I felt like I was too far under the rim. He didn't quit on the play. His length is something you really can't teach."
Any last-ditch hope for the Jayhawks finally died with 23 seconds left, still down by six. That's when Johnson started to go up for a three-pointer, felt Davis closing in on him and tried to adjust. His feet came back down to the ground and he was called for traveling just as he released his shot -- a shot that went in.
"I want to see that play so bad," said Johnson, who disagreed with the call. "... I actually made that shot, too. That was going to be the big shot."
Instead, Kentucky iced things shortly thereafter and got to don their national championship T-shirts. The Jayhawks retreated to their locker room. Johnson, Robinson (who likely played his last game as a Jayhawk) and Taylor (who did) fought back tears. Others sat in bewilderment, grappling with the oddity that their latest and most important comeback attempt yet had fallen short.
"We didn't want to get down 18, trust me on that, but we wanted to be a one-, two- or three-possession game under five [minutes]. We thought the pressure would shift on them," said Self. "We almost got it there."
"We did what we were doing all tournament -- let a team get ahead of us," said Teahan. "They were too good to do that."
Once the sting wears off, Kansas' players and their fans will undoubtedly remember the 2011-12 season for far more than the last game. A team of mostly overachievers defied all preseason expectations by even having the chance to play on the last night of the season. Kentucky validated its near season-long perception as the nation's premier team, but even then, the Jayhawks (32-7) refused to let Calipari's cast of future first-rounders run them off the court.
"From start to finish, there's been no team I've been around improve this much," said Self. "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, and there's no team I've been around that represented our university and ourselves any better than this one has."
In the immediate aftermath, however, the extent of their accomplishment provided little solace to Johnson. If anything, it exacerbated his pain.
"I know no one thought we could get into the national championship -- not even our coaches," said the junior. "But to see us grow so much, the ride felt so good.
"I just didn't think it was supposed to end like this."