NEW ORLEANS — This time Kansas couldn't come all the way back.
The gritty team that had walked a tightrope all the way to the national championship game finally fell off against mighty Kentucky. An 18-point deficit against a team full of future NBA draft picks was simply too much for the Jayhawks, who fell 67-59 on Monday night.
Kansas had rallied from big early deficits against Purdue and North Carolina State earlier in the tournament, giving some folks the feeling that things were meant to be this season.
Such a premonition gained support when the Jayhawks dug themselves out of a 13-point hole against Ohio State in the national semifinals, setting up a showdown with the team that has been anointed the national champions by most pundits most of the season.
Kansas hung tough through the opening minutes Monday night, but a lengthy run by the Wildcats midway through the first half turned a 23-17 lead into a 39-21 advantage.
It was all uphill from there for the Jayhawks.
Thomas Robinson had 18 points and 17 rebounds for Kansas, the All-American doing his best to spark a rally. But his points came almost entirely on volume — he was 6 of 17 from the field, harassed and harangued all game by Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.
Kansas eventually did find a spark, making the closing minutes a bit interesting.
Senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, whose streaky shooting has been a sore spot for Kansas fans throughout his career, finally knocked down a 3-pointer to get things going. He added a three-point play moments later, and Robinson made two free throws to make it 59-52.
Kansas kept coming, and when Elijah Johnson hit a 3-pointer and Robinson made two more foul shots, Kentucky coach John Calipari began to look nervous for the first time all night.
"You have to give Kansas credit," Calipari said. "They didn't stop."
Across the scorer's table, coach Bill Self was marching up and down the Kansas sideline, exhorting his team to play defense and convert on offense. At one point he reminded his team there are no "13-point plays," and so the veteran Jayhawks kept chipping away at the advantage.
Taylor finally missed a shot with about a minute left, and Robinson squandered their best chance to make it a one-possession game when he couldn't corral a loose ball along the baseline.
Kentucky managed to coax the final few minutes off the clock — making the free throws that Calipari's Memphis team missed against Kansas in the 2008 title game — and ultimately finishing off the championship that had been expected of the Wildcats all along.
Kansas slowly trudged off the elevated floor inside the Superdome, a team that once rallied from 19 points down to beat Missouri and that had survived so many nip-and-tuck battles in the NCAA tournament left to wonder how things had gone so sour so early.
And what might have been had they kept it close the entire way.