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

Ten Jayhawks had played in the first half.

“By the time you get to the finals, I think teams are pretty worn out,” said Tubbs, who is retired from coaching. “I'm not sure you see the best basketball by the time you get there. Be the same for Kansas as it was with us.”

Tubbs also bemoaned the schedule. The Sooners had played the late game in the semifinals, beating Arizona. Tubbs figures the Sooners didn't get to bed until 2 a.m. Then had to be back at Kemper late Sunday morning for media responsibilities.

His team was tired, and even though the Sooners played their style in the first half, it didn't produce a lead.

“I thought Kansas really didn't necessarily play the way the coaches wanted 'em to play,” Tubbs said. “We got 'em in a running game, and they were making some shots they don't normally make. I thought it was really good. I thought at halftime that Kansas wouldn't play as well the second half.”

Tubbs was right. KU hadn't played the way Brown wanted. But he had halftime to fix that.

“Coach Brown, being the great tactician, says, ‘Now we're going to play at our tempo,'” Manning said the other day in his office in Tulsa, where he's the TU basketball coach.

The second half slowed way down, particularly after OU rallied to take a 68-65 lead on Blaylock's 3-pointer with 11 minutes left.

“They forced tempo so much and pressured you, it's hard to really slow 'em down,” Brown said. “But that game, we just had a figure out a way to do it and it happened.

“I've seen teams start sitting on leads and slow the game down after they had control, but we just did it because that's the only way we could win.”

One way Brown slowed it down was having the 6-foot-11 Manning and fellow post player Chris Piper bring the ball upcourt. That got the pesky Blaylock and Grace away from the ball.

Kansas shortened the game and gave OU fewer scoring opportunities.

Twenty times, those Sooners had scored at least 100 points, including twice in the NCAA Tournament and seven times against Big Eight foes.

But after taking that 68-65 lead, OU scored only three points the next nine minutes. They made just one of their next 10 shots.

The Sooners were running on fumes.

“I thought we were a tired team, not just because of the way we played, but because of the situation,” Tubbs said.

Barry said Brown told the Jayhawks that if they could get to the final minutes with a chance, “Oklahoma's not comfortable with that. They'd been blowing people out all year long.”

Kansas took a 77-71 lead. But OU hung tough and had two chances to stay alive.

With 52 seconds left, Grace missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game. Then after Blaylock scored to bring OU within 78-77, Barry with 16 seconds left missed one of two foul shots. But Manning, a Dr. Octopus that night, grabbed the rebound, was fouled and sank two clinching foul shots. They weren't called Danny & the Miracles for nothing.

* * *

Tubbs, who had quite the spirited rivalry with Brown and Kansas, visited the KU locker room after the game to offer congratulations.

The best team hadn't won.

“If you really look at it, how many times does the best team win the NCAA Tournament, other than the UCLA stuff?” Tubbs reasons 25 years later. “It's hard to do.”

A quarter century later, the Jayhawks know what a monumental victory it was.

“They had everything,” Gueldner said. “They had two great guards that could penetrate and shoot and defend. They had inside presence with Stacey King and Grant. They could score and rebound.

“I don't mean this in a negative way, but they were extremely cocky. Very confident in their approach. They had reason to be.”

Said Barry, “They were kind of like piranhas. They were a dangerous team.”

Manning recalls huddling his team before warmups that night, telling them, “Let's go play. Let's have fun. We're not supposed to be here. But we are.”

Twenty-five years later, Manning admits, “We knew the best team didn't always win. It was the team that played the best that won.”

And on that night, April 4, 1988, Kansas played the best. It played Kansas' game rather well. But it played the Sooners' game equally so.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at btramel@opubco.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.

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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