MADISON, Wis. - At halftime of yesterday's NCAA Midwest Regional final at the Kohl Center, Kansas coach Roy Williams gave his Jayhawks one simple directive. It didn't matter that top-seeded Kansas led second-seeded Oregon by six points and had not trailed in the game.
"Coach told us that the game would be won on the backboards," junior center Drew Gooden said afterward.
The most basic of basketball chores got Williams and the Jayhawks over the biggest of humps - reaching the Final Four.
With the kind of furious performance that past Kansas teams rarely demonstrated in the NCAA tournament, the Jayhawks out-rebounded Oregon by 63-34 and overwhelmed a bunch of Ducks that were left waddling at the end of a 104-86 blowout.
The victory sent Kansas (33-3) to its first Final Four in nine years and quieted, at least for now, the doubters who have second-guessed Williams in recent seasons. The Jayhawks will play Maryland at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday night.
Led by Gooden and junior forward Drew Collison, the Jayhawks broke the game open with a 10-0 run with a little over seven minutes left. Collison finished with 25 points and 15 rebounds, while Gooden had 18 points and 20 rebounds, and freshman reserve Keith Langford added 20 points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes.
Kansas also stifled Oregon's two-headed Luke offense from the start. While senior swingman Freddie Jones did his best to keep Oregon (26-9) in the game, scoring a game-high 32 points on a variety of highlight-reel dunks and three-point shots, sophomore guards Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour shot a combined 7-for-29.
"They're just a very good basketball team," said Ridnour, who finished with nine points on 3-for-13 shooting, to go along with seven assists and seven turnovers. "They defended us very well. We didn't shoot the ball as well as we had to. They're an unbelievable team. They've got a great chance to win the whole thing."
The Jayhawks focused mainly on Jackson. After the 6-foot-7 lefty took advantage of his height by scoring in the lane on guard Kirk Hinrich early in the game, Kansas ran a string of taller defenders at him, including Gooden. Jackson missed 12 of 16 shots and stopped looking to shoot outside entirely in the second half.
Leading 40-28 with 5:39 left in the first half, the Jayhawks watched Oregon go on a Jones-inspired 12-0 run in less than three minutes. But Collison made three baskets to give Kansas a 48-42 halftime lead. Despite holding a 26-20 advantage in rebounds, Williams thought his team could do better.
"We told them that rebounding would win the game," Williams said. "They [Oregon] went small, and I didn't want to go small with them. Nick and Drew did a very good job [defending smaller players]. I think rebounding was the key to the game."
Said Oregon coach Ernie Kent: "Rebounding was a huge difference. They were relentless in their pursuit."
It was one of Collison's offensive rebounds - he had eight, and Gooden had 14 defensive rebounds - that ultimately led to Oregon's demise. After Kansas stretched its halftime lead to 73-59, two straight threes by reserve guard Anthony Lever started a 13-4 Ducks run.
When freshman guard Aaron Miles missed an ill-advised three for the Jayhawks, Collison was there to scoop it up and put it back in. On the next Kansas possession, a missed three by senior guard Jeff Boschee was tipped out and Langford was fouled, making both free throws.
"It was contagious," Gooden said of his team's rebounding.
It seemed almost fitting that Kansas got its last two baskets from end-of-the-bench reserves Bryant Nash and Chris Zerbe on rebound follows. After sweating out his team's semifinal regional victory over fourth-seeded Illinois on Friday night, Williams could savor yesterday's win as the final 10 minutes played out.
"I feel great. It's a happy, happy time, to say the least," said Williams, who will be making his third trip to the Final Four in 14 years at Kansas. "The last 48 hours have been tough. I was hoping that we would go out and play Kansas basketball."
After watching the Jayhawks beat Illinois in a physical game Friday, Kent was hoping that Kansas wouldn't be able to run with his Ducks. Not only did Oregon see what Ridnour would call "the mirror image of us," but Kansas also was better at executing in the open court than Oregon.
"It tells me that they're a great basketball team that has the flexibility to win the game both ways," Kent said. "They're going to be a hard team to beat."
Whatever emotional baggage the Jayhawks carried into the NCAA tournament after losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, whatever doubts seemed to creep in after they struggled with 16th-seeded Holy Cross in the opening round last week in St. Louis, have apparently disappeared.
Gooden, voted the regional's Most Outstanding Player, had his own message for the legion of Kansas critics, including some of the team's own fans, and he delivered it with the same forcefulness he exhibited in quieting the Ducks.
"It's a lot of crap," he said. "Coach [John] Wooden and Coach [Dean] Smith didn't win a championship for their first 20 years. You can't take anything away from Coach Williams."
Williams, who at 52 is the same age his mentor, Smith, was when he won his first national championship at North Carolina, has been known for his passionate, often emotional pleas on the sideline and in the locker room. That's what worked against Illinois.
Yesterday, it took the simplest of directives to get Kansas over the biggest of humps.