James gets bittersweet homecoming

Todd Zolecki

INDIANAPOLIS — The homecoming for Gophers forward Courtney James, which he hoped might end with a national championship tonight, became a bittersweet weekend, not only for himself, but for his family.
Besides Minnesota’s 78-69 loss to Kentucky on Saturday night at the RCA Dome, James’ family lost something more important. James’ uncle, Tony Whitley, died Thursday in a local hospital.
Whitley, who lived in Milwaukee most of his life, had a seizure, fell and hit his head Thursday.
James said Esther Whitley, his mother, is doing fine.
“She’s been OK,” James said. “She’s cool. She’s just happy that we’re here. She’s probably upset that we lost just like everybody else, but she handled this weekend quite well.”
James said his uncle’s death didn’t affect his performance. He finished the game with eight points and six rebounds. He also turned the ball over four times.
“I cannot blame the way I played on my uncle’s death,” he said. “I made a lot of silly turnovers. Personally, I don’t think I played well at all, but I can’t blame it on my uncle’s death. Of course, it was in my head.”
James said his uncle was a father figure to him. James’ father, Michael James, who lives in Indianapolis, didn’t play much of a role in the sophomore’s childhood.
“I never had much to say to my father,” James said. “I personally feel that he didn’t make the effort when I was a kid to be with me. Now that I’m a grown man he tries to contact me as much as he can. I don’t know if it’s because we’re winning and in the Final Four or if he’s making an effort. I mean I really don’t know.”
James doesn’t know what his father does for a living. He was reluctant to give his father a ticket to Saturday’s game but said he would do so at his mother’s request.
“I’ll do it for my mom,” he said. “I’ll do anything my mom asks me to. If she really thinks I should give my dad a ticket to the game, I’ll do it.”
Any props for the Big Ten?
James believes Minnesota proved the Big Ten is not a mediocre conference, no matter what the media or the coaches around the country might think.
“We gave the Big Ten a little name,” he said. “We’re not weak. We’re not just a run-over conference. There are some good ball clubs in the Big Ten. The last couple years we have been knocked out kind of early, but this year we made a great run. We tried to prove something.”
Anderson’s moment
Kentucky guard Derek Anderson entered the game Saturday and made a pair of free throws in the second half to give the Wildcats a 49-43 lead. Anderson had not played since he tore his anterior cruciate ligament Jan. 19 against Auburn. He came into the game to shoot the technical foul free throws charged against Gophers coach Clem Haskins.
“I said a while ago when he got hurt the only time I’d use him is if we got a technical,” Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said. “And we got a technical.”
Anderson is the team’s best free throw shooter, making more than 80 percent from the line.
They knew it was coming
The Gophers knew exactly what Kentucky planned to do with its pressure defense, but the Gophers admit they couldn’t handle it.
“We had a lot of turnovers,” James said. “We’re lucky we didn’t get blown out by 20.”
Gophers sophomore Quincy Lewis said the Gophers had the press figured out but didn’t execute.
“It’s not that we couldn’t solve it, it’s just that we had some mental breakdowns,” he said. “We knew we had to play near perfect for 40 minutes and that’s what we didn’t do.”
Holiday wishes may come true
At a Christmas party two years ago, Kentucky sophomore forward Ron Mercer said he wanted to win the national championship his freshman year and sophomore year. His wish might come true tonight if Kentucky can beat Arizona. Kentucky is the defending NCAA champion.
“We’re one game away from making that possible,” Pitino said.
Mercer, who is turning pro after this year, said he believes he’ll go down in the record books if his team can win back-to-back titles.
“I think a lot of people will remember teams winning two national championships than one,” he said. “And I want to be known for going out and winning two national championships and being a part of this Kentucky team.”
Bleeding Carolina Blue
Loyalty toward North Carolina doesn’t die — even at the Final Four. Arizona guard Miles Simon still has a letter from Tar Heels coach Dean Smith pinned to his bulletin board that he received during his junior year of high school.
In the letter Smith wished Simon good luck in college. The Tar Heels weren’t going to recruit Simon, from Fullerton, Calif., because they had a plethora of shooting guards on their roster.
The letter was personally signed by Smith, instead of the usual stamped signature that accompanies many recruiting letters.
“I wanted to go there,” Simon said. “Anytime I would buy a hat or shirt or whatever that said North Carolina, I was going to get it. He wrote a little note on the bottom of it and it was just something I can treasure.”
Gophers guard Bobby Jackson, from Salisbury, N.C., also cheered for North Carolina while growing up.
Out of nowhere
Tar Heels junior Shammond Williams, second on the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game, received no scholarship offers coming out of high school from Division I programs.
The Citadel asked Williams to try out as a walk-on. North Carolina Community College was the only school to offer Williams a scholarship.
Smith said it’s unusual for his program to sign a player who wasn’t recruited by any other Division I school. The coach originally intended Williams to be a back-up guard.
Williams, from Greenville, S.C., is the definitive gym rat. It’s not unusual to find Williams at the gym at 2 a.m. practicing.
“My teammates will tell you that I just enjoy playing basketball, and just enjoy working on things to become a better basketball player.”
Fast break points
ù Gophers coach Clem Haskins won the Associated Press’ National Coach of the Year award Friday.
ù Gophers guard Charles Thomas said he rooted for Kentucky growing up in Harlan, Ky., but didn’t have a burning desire to play there.
“I wanted to be part of a quality program, winning program, and just come in and help the team win,” he said Friday. “That’s my main thing, coming out and being productive, helping the team. I never dreamed of being a part of Kentucky’s program. It wasn’t time for me to go there. But I feel like I’m in the right situation now.”
Thomas said he will cheer for Kentucky tonight in the NCAA championship game against Arizona.
ù The Gophers’ loss was their first to a ranked opponent this season. They were 9-0 up to that point.
ù This is Arizona coach Lute Olson’s first appearance in the championship game.
“I’m thrilled,” he said. “I told them as long as we’ve gone this far we may as well get it done Monday. So we’re excited. It’s going to be a great opportunity for our guys.”