NEW ORLEANS — Four years ago, Conner Teahan basked in a shower of streamers and confetti. On Monday — during his last game as a collegiate athlete — they rained down on him again, but he didn’t linger in the bittersweet deluge.
“I remember those fireworks going off and the confetti shooting down,” Teahan said. “Having been on the other end of that situation my freshman year, it’s a totally different perspective. It’s tough.”
The senior guard spent his final moments in a Kansas uniform walking solemnly off the court — mouth agape, eyes dazed and glossy. As Teahan disappeared into the tunnel, offering limp high-fives to Jayhawk fans gravely reaching over the railing to say thank you and goodbye, the Kentucky Wildcats danced in the confetti, celebrating their 67-59 win in the national championship final.
Four years ago, the streamers were blue, red and yellow — the colors he’d dreamed of wearing since he could first dribble a basketball. He was a freshman at Kansas when they shocked John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers in 2008, winning the national title in overtime. He didn’t play a minute in that game, but got to ascend a ladder and snip a portion of a net.
On Monday, he played 17 minutes against Calipari’s Wildcats, contributing only one assist and taking one shot. As the Wildcats — several of whom weren’t even in high school when Teahan took his piece of nylon home — were happily cutting down the net, Teahan sat at his locker, sneakers off, cheeks glimmering with tears. When he spoke of his teammates, his voice cracked and his throat pulled tight. For one of the longest minutes of his life, he couldn’t force words through the disappointment.
“I’m sorry,” he told the horde of reporters surrounding him between sobs.
Teahan was in New Orleans because he made the rare choice of redshirting last season during what would’ve been his senior year. The former walk-on played little more than three-minutes per game during his first three seasons, but earned a scholarship after Xavier Henry left early for the NBA. Rather than burn up his final year of eligibility playing sparse minutes, Teahan sat the year out, sharpening his skills every day in practice.
It was a wise move. This year, Teahan averaged 21.1 minutes and 5.6 points-per-game; highlighted by the 37 minutes and 12 points (4 of 4 from 3-point range) he amassed against rival Missouri on Feb 25.
Though he came eight points shy of a second national title, he admits this year’s run to the Final Four meant more to him than winning the championship during his freshman year. Head coach Bill Self trusted him to be one of the five Jayhawks on the court throughout the harrowing final minutes of the game and he was on the court when the buzzer sounded, the fireworks exploded and that confetti floated down.
“Winning a national championship is huge no matter what. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life,” he said. “But for me, personally, the way that I was able to contribute to this means a lot.”
Teahan grew up little more than a half hour from Allen Fieldhouse. He’d long dreamed of donning a royal blue uniform with red trim, the word Kansas emblazoned on his chest. After averaging more than 25 points-per-game for Kansas City’s Rockhurst High during his senior season, he had several Division I scholarship offers and was weighing playing for the likes of Wichita State, Kansas State and even hated Missouri. He opted instead to take a spot at the end of Kansas’s bench with no scholarship in hand.
He sat on the end of that bench during the Jayhawks’ title run in 2008. But this year against Kentucky, he was the second man off of it early in the first half.
“He’s such a hard worker,” junior center Jeff Withey said. “I love the guy so much. He’s so fun to be around. He lights up the locker room. I’m going to miss him a ton.”
When Teahan ambled of the court, his mind foggy in the haze of defeat, freshman guard Merv Lindsay walked next to him, hand around the senior’s shoulder, trying to console him at the end of his career.
“I told him we’ll miss him,” Lindsay said. “He’s won it before. He knows what it’s like — he leads by example.”
On Tuesday, that leader will wake up as an accounting student at the Kansas. He has no aspirations to play basketball professionally overseas. His career ended as it began — in a cloud of confetti.
“I’ll get a job,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing [next March], but probably nothing as exciting as what I’m doing right now.”