Walters, Jayhawks finally fade away

JOHN EISENBERG

April 04, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW ORLEANS -- A little more than a minute into the second half, Rex Walters was at it again. He pulled up his dribble above the key, vaulted straight up, and up, with his 40-inch vertical leap, and let fly a three-pointer. No hand in his face. No nothing. The ball passed through the net with a crisp snap. The kid was hot.

At that moment he had 16 points in his 15 minutes on the court, allowing Kansas to hang tough in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament yesterday at the Superdome, just three points behind North Carolina with 19 minutes to go.

There was reason to believe the Jayhawks were in perfect position to strike. After taking Carolina's best shot and falling 10 down in the first half, they were still very much upright. Yes, they were surviving on long jumpers as opposed to Carolina's inside game and better shots, but with Walters and fellow backcourter Adonis Jordan rolling, what did it matter?

Walters' next basket came with 20 seconds left to play, after more than 18 scoreless minutes. What happened? It was the question to ask after Carolina had fought off the last Kansas rally on the way to a 78-68 win.

See, college basketball is a simpler game than Billy Packer would have you believe. Matchup defenses and weakside help are important enough, but there is a basic rule that applies in every game between comparable teams: If you want to win, your best players better come up big.

Walters finished with 19 points, exceeding his team-high average by four, but his second-half disappearance left the Jayhawks stretched too thin for offense against a bigger, stronger Carolina team. They simply did not have the punch to make up a lead hanging between five and eight points.

Much had been made of Walters' journey from a disdained high school senior to a star on a Final Four team -- "he's living his dream," Kansas coach Roy Williams said beforehand -- but at the end of his dream the cocky, trash-talking Walters chose not to come into the interview room, aware that the questions were not going to be pretty.

What happened to him, of course, was just the underrated Carolina defense closing in on another hot shot, much as it did in the second half of the East Regional final against Cincinnati's equally cocky Nick Van Exel.

"At halftime we put an asterisk by Walters' name on the blackboard," Carolina coach Dean Smith said. "That meant that we just could not allow him to get a good look at the basket anymore. Someone was going to have to take a run at him."

That someone was Carolina's defensive ace, point guard Derrick Phelps, who played with a bruised tailbone that took a bad hit on a charge early in the second half. Phelps grimaced through the rest of the game and could barely stand at the end, but he had fulfilled Smith's wish of shutting down Walters.

"Derrick is just an outstanding defender, that's all there is to it," Smith said. "We had him on Jordan in the first half and Walters went crazy. Then we switched him onto to Walters at halftime and Jordan went on a run."

It meant that Kansas would never have the luxury of its backcourt leaders on a roll at the same time, and that was asking too much of the Jayhawks on a day when the Heels lived on the big shoulders of Eric Montross and George Lynch, whose 37 points and 15 rebounds Kansas could not match inside.

"Every time we set a screen they had a new man there to pick [me up]," Walters said later in the locker room. "Real good defense. Always a hand in your face."

Walters became so irrelevant -- he got frustrated and wound up with six turnovers -- that the unthinkable occured and he sat for five minutes late in the second half.

The Jayhawks were still just three down with 2:48 to play, having six times cut leads of at least six points to no more than three, but then Carolina's late-game monster, Donald Williams, took over. He nailed a three-pointer, and after Kansas missed a rushed shot, hit two free throws to push the lead to eight. That was that.

It's easy to figure, remember? Each of Carolina's best players were major league throughout, and Kansas' were not. Montross dominated inside. Lynch was tough. Donald Williams went for 25 points. Kansas got only 19 points from its starting frontcourt and 19 apiece from Jordan and Walters, none from Walters when it mattered.

"When it got down to it in the second half," Lynch said, "I don't think they were ready for our defense. We changed it up. We took away the easy, open shots. We took runs at them. I think that was the difference."

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