NEW ORLEANS — Trailing by nine points at halftime, Kansas had Ohio State right where it wanted in Saturday’s national semifinal.
The Jayhawks’ NCAA tournament run has been defined by strong second-half performances, and they offered another with the help of indomitable forward Thomas Robinson. As he has all season, Robinson played at a higher level than everybody else on the floor at the Superdome, leading the Jayhawks to a 64-62 victory over Ohio State before 73,361.
The nine-point halftime deficit was second-largest halftime deficit overcome in a national semifinal.
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better,” said Robinson, a Washington native who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds. “When we’re down, we stick together.”
Said Jayhawks Coach Bill Self, “These guys have been in so many close games, they have so much confidence.”
Kansas (32-6) earned a trip to its first national title game since 2008, when it beat a John Calipari-coached Memphis team to give Self his first national championship.
This season, Self’s ninth in Lawrence, may be his finest coaching job. After losing to mid-major programs Virginia Commonwealth and Northern Iowa in the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, Self took a team with middling preseason expectations to its eighth consecutive Big 12 regular season title.
He watched Robinson rebound from personal tragedy to turn himself into a national player of the year candidate. He saw erratic senior Tyshawn Taylor overcome an up-and-down career arc to deliver a sterling performance in a Midwest Region final victory over North Carolina. And he witnessed center Jeff Withey blossom into the Big 12 defensive player of the year (he had seven blocks on Saturday night to give him 27 in five NCAA tournament games).
And Saturday night provided another sterling effort and turnaround. Kansas had excelled in the second half in the NCAA tournament, particularly in the second round against Purdue and in the Elite Eight against North Carolina. The Jayhawks were poised for another second-half surge Saturday, when the Buckeyes missed their first 10 shots from the field in the half.
Robinson’s emphatic dunk cut the deficit to three points. Elijah Johnson’s layup in transition tied the score at 38, capping a 17-4 run. It took nearly seven minutes into the second half before Ohio State (31-8) had its first field goal, a corner three-pointer by Aaron Craft.
Meantime, Deshaun Thomas, who had been one of Ohio State’s best offensive players throughout the tournament, picked up his fourth foul with 11 minutes 30 seconds remaining.
Ohio State’s William Buford and Kansas senior Conner Teahan traded three-point baskets down the stretch. With Kansas trailing by one point with three minutes to play, Robinson demanded the ball in the post, but he could not convert against Jared Sullinger.
Moments later, two free throws by Travis Releford gave the Jayhawks their first lead since the opening minute of the game, 56-55. But back came the Buckeyes and Craft, the school’s all-time single-season steals leader, who stole the ball and raced the other way for a layup with 2:21 remaining.
In the game’s final 10 seconds, Taylor made two free throws to provide Kansas with its final points. Leading by three and with the Buckeyes out of timeouts, Kansas then fouled Craft to send him to the line with 2.8 seconds left. Craft made the first free throw and purposely missed the second, but he was whistled for a lane violation because he crossed the free throw line before the ball hit the rim. The Jayhawks quickly inbounded the ball before the Buckeyes could set themselves, and the clock ran out.
“I left the line early apparently,” Craft said. “You have to live with it.”
At halftime, all five Ohio State starters had scored between five and eight points. It was the clearest sign of balance by a team that had been winning in unspectacular fashion.
All season, Ohio State has been one of the teams least reliant on the three-pointer. The Buckeyes have shot 33.2 percent from three-point range and relied on three-pointers for just 20.1 percent of their total point production. But they made 5 of 10 attempts beyond the arc in the first half, enabling them to enter the half with a nine-point advantage.
Ohio State doubled up Kansas, 26-13, with 6:10 left in the half after Thomas followed up a missed contested layup by Craft.
The Buckeyes were the nation’s second-most efficient defensive team all season and looked like it throughout the first half.
With less than five minutes left in the half, Kansas had more turnovers (eight) than field goals (seven) and was shooting 29 percent. And Robinson and Taylor had made a combined 5 of 15 shots from the floor.
Late in the half, Thomas buried an 18-foot jumper over Robinson to extend the lead to 13 points.
Kansas finally got a jolt of positive energy in the waning moments of the half, when Taylor flipped a pass ahead to Travis Releford, who released his buzzer-beating layup with two-tenths of a second left on the clock.
“We were playing in quicksand, it looked like,” Self said. “The light came on and we were a lot more aggressive.” At halftime, he said he told his team, ‘C’mon boys, we’re better than this. In the first half, that’s not who we are at all.’ ”