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.”
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 email@example.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.