By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
Brad Witherspoon wasn't quite ready to call the game over. But he was awfully close.
With the Kansas Jayhawks trailing Memphis 60-51 with 2 minutes, 10 seconds remaining in the 2008 national championship game, Witherspoon sat with his teammates at the end of the KU bench and tried to come up with plausible ways the Jayhawks could still win. He realized the odds were daunting.
"I don't want to say that I gave up, but anybody knows that when you're down nine with two minutes and 10 seconds left, you need some miracles to happen," said Witherspoon, who was a senior forward on that team.
The Jayhawks, of course, got their miracle.
Memphis missed 4 of 5 free throws in the final 75 seconds, and Mario Chalmers made one of the most famous shots in NCAA Tournament history when he swished a 3-pointer from just to the right of the top of the key with 2.1 seconds to go. That tied the game at 63, and KU won the game 75-68 in overtime.
"I knew once that shot went in we were going to win," Witherspoon said. "The momentum in the building shifted."
In addition to providing Witherspoon with a memory to last a lifetime, that game taught Witherspoon something he tries to instill in basketball players today in his role as a men's basketball assistant coach at John Wood Community College.
"Keep fighting, keep fighting, you never know what could happen," Witherspoon said.
That was the mantra when JWCC trailed Southeastern Community College by 10 points in the second half of a Feb. 6 game in West Burlington, Iowa. JWCC rallied to beat SCC 74-73 for its first win over SCC in program history.
"(That game against Memphis) is just a teaching point that if they miss some free throws and we make some shots, it's a different game," Witherspoon said. "It doesn't matter how much time is on the clock."
The 2007-08 KU season also taught Witherspoon another important lesson — that nothing is ever as bad as it might seem.
KU started that season 20-0 before losing three Big 12 games in span of seven games in late January and February.
"Being from Kansas and being from Lawrence, Kan., that's like everyone's church, Allen Fieldhouse," said Witherspoon, who graduated from Humboldt High School, about 90 miles south of Lawrence. "We're the pastors you could say. So when we lose three of (seven), it's like the Earth is stopping and the sun is not going to come up."
The Jayhawks called a players-only team meeting after that skid.
"The message was just to not let this turn into more than what it is," said Witherspoon, who spent two years as an assistant at Culver-Stockton College before coming to JWCC.
KU didn't lose another game, finishing 37-3.
KU's season unfolded in a similar fashion this season. The Jayhawks started 19-1 before losing three straight Big 12 games in early February. They recovered to finish the regular season 29-5 and claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's South Region.
After a pair of tournament wins, KU will face No. 4-seeded Michigan on Friday in the Sweet 16.
Given the similarities between the 2007-08 season and this season, it's no surprise Witherspoon chose Kansas to win the national championship. Of course, he probably would've picked the Jayhawks to win it all even had they come in still in a funk.
"I don't think I've picked anybody but Kansas since 1995," Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon grew up a Jayhawk fan. After graduating from Humboldt having scored more than 1,200 career points and collecting second-team all-state honors as a senior, Witherspoon had a chance to play college basketball at some NCAA Division II schools or junior colleges.
Yet, he couldn't pass up going to KU.
Witherspoon tried out for the team as a freshman but didn't make it. He tried again as a sophomore and made the practice squad before making the roster as a walk-on as a junior and senior.
Witherspoon played only 41 minutes in his two seasons, but that didn't cheapen his experience.
"Being a kid from Kansas from a small, small town and running out of that tunnel for 65 (home) games or whatever it was in two years was really something I think every kid in Kansas would want to do at some point in their life," Witherspoon said.
Although Witherspoon didn't play in the 2008 national tournament, he did get a few minutes of action at the end of KU's 107-67 first-round win over Niagara (N.Y.) University at the United Center in Chicago in the 2007 tournament.
Witherspoon grabbed two rebounds, assisted a 3-pointer by Jeremy Case and, with Michael Jordan on hand watching, made a free throw with under two minutes remaining.
"That's my claim to fame is I scored in front of MJ in his own building," Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon also picked up some nice hardware. He has a 2007 Big 12 championship ring, a 2008 Final Four ring and one to trump them all — a ring that commemorates KU's 2008 Big 12 and national championships.
Plus, Witherspoon got to go up against some of the top players in the country every day in practice and gain some unique insight.
Like, who was the team jokester?
"Brandon Rush is probably the funniest guy I know," Witherspoon said. "He was the guy who would miss curfew and Coach (Bill) Self would ask, â€˜Who missed curfew last night?' and he'd be the only one to actually admit it."
What's the key to shutting down Chalmers, who now plays for the Miami Heat?
"I used to guard him every single day. That was sort of who I was matched up with. He's soft, man," Witherspoon said with a laugh. "I don't get why these NBA teams don't realize it. You just have to get into him and foul him a couple times, and he'll give up."
Witherspoon then paused, gave up the humor and added quite seriously, "Until it comes crunch time, and then he'll hit a big shot."
Chalmers hit the shot that showed Witherspoon that even a lead that seems insurmountable isn't always safe when you combine an opponent with heart and a little luck.
"That was the guy we wanted to take the shot, and it just happened to work out for us," Witherspoon said. "It was definitely a huge, huge shot -- the biggest shot I've ever been a part of."