Top-seeded Kansas can’t solve early-round jinx

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Roy Williams and his two All-Americans will be watching this year’s Final Four, not playing in it.
Top-seeded Kansas got outstanding performances from Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz, but didn’t have the quickness to stay with No. 8 seed Rhode Island, which won 80-75 Sunday to advance to the Midwest Regional semifinals.
The early exit was another bitter loss for Williams, who hasn’t coached a Final Four team since 1993. His Jayhawks were top-ranked when they lost to Arizona in the regional semis last year. This team was ranked No. 2.
“I’m not sure how this one ranks (compared with the Arizona loss),” a red-eyed Williams said afterward. “But I told the kids in the locker room I was sorry if I caused them a problem by talking about my desire to win a national title.
“If it put extra pressure on them, then I apologize.”
Rhode Island (24-8), led by guards Cuttino Mobley and Tyson Wheeler, was every bit as relaxed in advancing to just the second regional semifinal in school history.
Point guard Wheeler had 20 points, eight assists and five rebounds. Mobley had 27 points, five assists. Wheeler had five 3-pointers, Mobley three.
The Rams advance to play surprising 13th-seed Valparaiso, which beat Florida State 83-77 earlier in the day.
Rhode Island coach Jim Harrick, who led UCLA to the national title in 1995 but was fired after the following season, is in his first year with the Rams.
Harrick is good friends with Valparaiso coach Homer Drew. He’s even better friends with one of Drew’s assistants — Jim Harrick, Jr.
“There is a heavenly father and he was in the building this weekend, I’ll tell you that,” Harrick said, “because it couldn’t be more magical than it was.”
Pierce had 23 points, and LaFrentz scored 22 and grabbed 14 rebounds. But they didn’t get enough help. Billy Thomas was 2-of-15, including 2-of-13 from 3-point range, and the Jayhawks shot just 43 percent.
Meanwhile Rhode Island shot 50 percent, something the previous 25 Kansas opponents had failed to do.
“I think you’ve got to give credit to Rhode Island for making a lot of big shots and keeping their poise,” Kansas forward T.J. Pugh said. “I don’t think it was a question of us losing our poise at all.”
The Jayhawks simply couldn’t stop Mobley and Wheeler. Whether they were slicing past man-to-man pressure or shooting 3-pointers over the Kansas zone, the tandem was too much.
“When we play as well together as we did tonight, it’s very difficult for opponents to hold us,” Mobley said. “I’m not trying to be high on ourselves, but that’s the advantage we have, to outquick people.”
The loss ended a streak of five straight regional semifinal appearances for Kansas, which finishes 35-4.
LaFrentz had a double-double by halftime, with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but Kansas only led 30-28 because of the play of Rhode Island’s guards. Mobley had nine points at the break, Preston Murphy came off the bench to score five, and Wheeler had four assists.
Thomas had returned to the lineup and played well in a first-round blowout of Prairie View A&M. But he missed his first eight shots before making a 3-pointer that gave Kansas a 39-32 lead with 17 minutes left in the game.
Kansas finished 5-of-28 from 3-point range, and only outrebounded the Rams by two.
“We understand we’ve got to move on,” Williams said. “We’ve got to go on and life continues.”