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National Columnist

The travails of Elijah Johnson



NEW ORLEANS -- Elijah Johnson played too well for this, but here we go anyway. Because this is what happened, and this is why ... well, this isn't why Kansas lost to Kentucky in the national title game. Kansas lost because Kentucky was just too good, but this is why Kansas didn't make it closer at the end, didn't keep flicking Kentucky in the nose and see if the big, bad Wildcats might just completely fall apart.

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That didn't happen -- Kansas didn't keep flicking -- because of Elijah Johnson, who was miserable in the final 23 seconds.

The first mistake came with Kentucky leading 65-59, but wobbling nonetheless. Just 4 1/2 minutes earlier Kentucky had led by 15. Now it was six, and it stayed at six when Kentucky's Marquis Teague missed the front end of a one-and-one situation.

Down the court came Kansas, looking for a 3-pointer to cut the Kentucky lead to three. Johnson, who already had made two such 3's in the second half, rose for a third but saw 6-foot-10 Kentucky shot-blocker Anthony Davis zooming at him from the lane.

Johnson froze.

Didn't shoot it Didn't pass it. Didn't even drop it. Just ... floated back to earth. Basketball still in his hands.

That's a turnover. Traveling.

Kentucky got the ball to Doron Lamb, and Lamb hit two free throws with 17.5 seconds left. Now it was 67-59. Probably over, but you never know. Maybe Kansas hits a 3, forces a turnover, hits another quick 3, and then ... well, who knows?

With 14 seconds left, Johnson rose again for a 3-pointer. Air ball.

Game over.

The confetti exploded and Kansas' players walked slowly off the court, right past the celebrating Wildcats. The last two Kansas players to walk past were Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson. Releford was consoling Johnson, whose head was tucked inside his jersey, which was pulled up over his shoulders. While all those hares at Kentucky were celebrating, Johnson snuck off the court, looking like a tortoise.

And it's like I said in the very first sentence of this story: He played too well for that. Johnson scored 13 points on the game, 10 in the second half, all in the final 14 minutes when Kansas was trying to make a contest of this mismatch.

Kansas cut Kentucky's 46-30 lead to 46-36 thanks to four points and a steal from Johnson. Kentucky pushed it back to 56-41 with 8:41 left, but a 3-pointer by Johnson made it 56-44. Another 3-pointer by Johnson made it 62-55 with 2:31 to play.

Still a game, somehow. Barely. Elijah Johnson was instrumental in that.

But then he was instrumental in something else. He traveled. He shot an air ball. And then the clock was all zeroes and the confetti was all over and Kentucky was all smiles and Johnson's head was inside his jersey.

And he played too well for that.
 
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