NEW ORLEANS - The Syracuse Orangemen were playground players early, a bundle of nerves late. They juked, jammed and barely held on for a victory that gave coach Jim Boeheim his long-awaited championship.
Freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara did the scoring and Hakim Warrick came up with a huge block at the end Monday night to lift the Orange to a thrilling 81-78 victory over Kansas.
"We played the best first half we could play, and then we just hung on," Boeheim said.
Warrick, who missed two free throws that would have sealed the game with 13.5 seconds left, made up for it by coming from nowhere to swat a 3-point attempt by Michael Lee that would have tied it.
Kirk Hinrich, cold all night, shot an airball at the buzzer and the Orangemen (30-5) ran to the floor to celebrate their first-ever title. Boeheim threw his arms in the air and ran to shake hands with Roy Williams, the 15-year Kansas coach who was deprived once again of the championship.
McNamara hit six 3-pointers in the first half to finish with 18 points. Anthony showed he is certainly ready for the NBA if he chooses, fighting off a bad back to finish with 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
"We never talked about him being the best freshman in the country," Boeheim said. "We talked about him being the best player in the country. I think in this tournament he proved it."
He made Boeheim the winner in the marquee coaching matchup of brilliant tacticians who had never won it all.
Sixteen years ago, Syracuse lost by one to Indiana on Keith Smart's game-winner with four seconds left on the same Superdome floor. Boeheim said he wanted to get the last four seconds right this time, and he did - just barely.
"I think this building kind of owed us one," he said.
In the first half, it didn't look as if he'd have to sweat it.
The Orangemen built their lead to 18 during a breakneck first 20 minutes. But things ground to a halt in the second, and it was Boeheim's famous 2-3 zone that closed out the game.
When it was over, bad free-throw shooting killed the Jayhawks (30-8). They missed an amazing 18 of 30. They also never really found the outside touch to force the Orangemen to guard them up high. Hinrich shot 6-for-20 - 3-for-12 from 3-point range. He missed twice with a chance to tie in the closing seconds, including one that went halfway down the net before rattling out.
Inside, Boeheim's `D' came close to turning Kansas into a one-man show. All-American forward Nick Collison was valiant - he finished with 19 points and 21 rebounds. But in the end, he simply didn't have enough help against the tall and long Syracuse players and that well-coached defense. There was one other fatal flaw: The 6-foot-9 senior went 3-for-10 from the line.
Of course, there are some things Boeheim simply couldn't coach, and McNamara, Anthony, Warrick - the whole Syracuse team, really - played a one-on-one style of offense in the first half that looked as if it came straight from the playground.
McNamara was relentless, unabashedly hoisting shots from 23, 24, 25 feet and making almost all of them. By the end of the first half, he was 6-for-8 - his season high - and the Orangemen led 53-42. The 53 were the most points scored by one team in the first half of a title game.
Was McNamara the best player out there?
Ask any of the three or four players who had the task of guarding Anthony, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, after he took passes at the top of the key. A ball fake here, a dribble between the legs there, a spin or a pull-up 3-pointer - nothing was out of the question with this guy, and very little of it was stoppable.
Before his back started acting up, Anthony look destined to join Dwyane Wade of Marquette as the second player with a triple-double in this year's tournament. As it was, he finished three assists shy.
"We just came into the tournament and proved everybody wrong," Orangemen guard Josh Pace said. "We have the best player in the country."
Even with Anthony struggling down the stretch, Kansas couldn't play catchup well enough to tie or take the lead. A great chance came with 14 minutes left when, trailing 61-58, the Jayhawks picked off a bad pass and started rushing downcourt. But Kansas turned it right back over, and Anthony made a 3-pointer to keep the Orange ahead.
Syracuse stretched it to 12 with 7 1/2 minutes left, and KU could never overcome after that.
It was another bitter defeat for Williams, who stayed without the one victory that would have rounded out an otherwise impeccable resume.
Now, his next job is to decide whether he's interested in the opening at North Carolina, his alma mater, or wants to return to Kansas to try to complete his still-unfinished business.
Choked up, as he normally is when the season ends, he angrily dismissed a question about the Tar Heels job.
"I've got 13 kids in that locker room that I love," he said.
Boeheim, meanwhile, improved to 1-2 in title games. Nine years after the 1987 loss, Syracuse fell to Kentucky in the final.
He insisted he would coach the same as he always does in the final, and by the looks of things he did. He also called "foolishness" the notion that a win in this game would make him a better coach. That, for now at least, is still open for debate.