1988 NCAA championship game: Kansas played Oklahoma's game and lived to tell about it

Twenty-five years ago, Kansas pulled one of the big upsets in NCAA championship game history, beating the high-flying Sooners. And everyone remembers the way Kansas controlled the second half. But that's not why KU won.
by Berry Tramel Published: April 8, 2013
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photo - Members of the University of Kansas Jayhawks college basketball team, including Danny Manning, second from left, hold up their trophy after winning the championship game of the NCAA final four tournament in Kansas City, Mo., in this April 5, 1988 file photo. Earning Kansas' first Final Four berth since 1993 is nice. But you have to go back five more years to see what the Jayhawks really want: their first national title since 1988, the year before Roy Williams took over as coach. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)  SUSAN RAGAN - ASSOCIATED PRESS
Members of the University of Kansas Jayhawks college basketball team, including Danny Manning, second from left, hold up their trophy after winning the championship game of the NCAA final four tournament in Kansas City, Mo., in this April 5, 1988 file photo. Earning Kansas' first Final Four berth since 1993 is nice. But you have to go back five more years to see what the Jayhawks really want: their first national title since 1988, the year before Roy Williams took over as coach. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan) SUSAN RAGAN - ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jeff Gueldner couldn't catch his breath.

Mookie Blaylock nailed a jumper six seconds into the game. Danny Manning answered with two baskets in the next 40 seconds.

Back and forth went the Sooners and Jayhawks in the 1988 NCAA championship game. The most frenetic basketball ever played on college hoops' grandest stage.

“Never have been so tired in my life the first five minutes of the half,” said Gueldner, a KU guard in that memorable showdown 25 years ago. “No timeouts, the pace, everybody was making every shot. When the ball goes in, they're setting their press, there's no time to take a breath.

“Wasn't a lot of time to think. It was a whirlwind.”

Kansas led 16-13 at the first timeout, with 14:08 left in the half. KU led 31-25 with 10 minutes to go before halftime.

The Jayhawks had six turnovers the first six minutes. They had 12 turnovers after 15 1/2 minutes. Eighteen turnovers after 25 minutes.

But boy, when Kansas got a shot, it was going in. The Jayhawks made 20 of their first 24 shots and were 22 of 29 at halftime, a sizzling 75.8 percent.

“We either made a layup or turned it over,” then-Kansas coach Larry Brown said the other day from Dallas, where he's now the SMU coach.

Twenty-five years ago, Kansas pulled one of the big upsets in NCAA championship game history. The sixth-seeded Jayhawks beat the high-flying Sooners 83-79; they became Danny & the Miracles.

Manning certainly was majestic that night, with 31 points and 18 rebounds. And everyone remembers the way Kansas controlled the second half.

But that's not why KU won. KU won because of that frenzied first half, when the Jayhawks played the Sooners' game and lived to tell about it.

* * *

A 50-50 halftime score is hard to fathom in 21st century basketball. Sounds like an overtime score in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

But 50-50 was in Billy Tubbs' wheelhouse in 1988. The Sooner coach had constructed the perfect team for his uptempo system. Five marvelous athletes who were skilled and seemingly could play all day without rest.

Guards Mookie Blaylock and Ricky Grace each played 40 minutes against Arizona in the semifinals; they had done the same in the regional semifinal against Louisville. The frontcourt of Harvey Grant, Stacey King and Dave Sieger played only slightly less.

The Sooners attacked with constant pressure. Their stamina seemed endless.

You hear coaches talk about teams imposing their will these days? Not much evidence of it. But the '88 Sooners imposed their will on opponents. Even the Jayhawks in the title game.

“Our gameplan was to run set plays, work the ball from side to side, and push came to shove, get the ball to Danny,” Gueldner said. “But when you play against a team that's pressing you, if you don't attack, you're just going to get eaten alive. We were attacking and getting good shots and making good shots.

“When things are going at that pace, there aren't near as many cognizant decisions being made as people like to think. There's a lot of reaction.”

OU had beaten Kansas twice already, though both were competitive games: 73-65 in Lawrence, 95-87 in Norman.

The Sooners entered the title game 34-3, having won 21 of their last 22 games. They were the best OU basketball team ever, before or since.

But when those Sooners stared down the Jayhawks, the Jayhawks stared back.

“We weren't really planning to play Oklahoma's game,” said KU guard Scooter Barry, who played nine minutes in the game. “It was just something that kind of just happened in the heat of the moment.

“Danny and Milt (Newton) and Kevin (Pritchard) just felt like we didn't want to show any kind of fear. Through just the adrenaline rush and the comfortable feeling of being in Kansas City, it was kind of a don't-back-down atmosphere.”

Barry said Brown tried to rein in the Jayhawks because he knew OU had the advantage playing that way.

“I had no idea we could go up and down with them and score 50 points in a half against Oklahoma and have a chance to win,” Brown said. “But it happened.”

* * *

At halftime, the Sooners entered their Kemper Arena locker room tired. Kansas was tired, too, but the Sooners were gassed.

Blaylock, King, Grant and Sieger had played all 20 minutes. Grace sat out three minutes, with sixth man Terrence Mullins taking over. By game's end, Mullins had played seven minutes — six for Grace, one for King.

“Oklahoma played six, really only five,” Brown said. “Even though they had a pretty good bench, they didn't use it. Fact that we played a lot of people, I think it helped us.”

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by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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