ST. LOUIS — In December, Kansas followed a win over then-No. 2 Ohio State with a home loss to Davidson, leaving the Jayhawks with an 8-3 record and “no chemistry,” Coach Bill Self said Sunday night from the podium at Edward Jones Dome. “We were just bad.”
At that point in the season, Self never would have thought that the Jayhawks would be facing the Buckeyes again, and certainly not in the Final Four. That, though, is exactly the spot Kansas finds itself in after surging past top-seeded North Carolina, 80-67, in an exciting Midwest Region final.
Senior guard Tyshawn Taylor led the second-seeded Jayhawks with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists, and center Jeff Withey added 15 points, eight rebounds and three blocks, including two crucial swats as Kansas pulled away late. Washington native Thomas Robinson was named the Midwest Region most outstanding player and finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.
But for a program with one of the most rabid fan bases in the country, its 14th Final Four appearance and first since 2008 will be a wholly unique experience. These Jayhawks took everyone by surprise, even their own coach.
“This is a team that nobody thought it could happen,” Self said. “I think this team has probably played as close to its ceiling as it possibly could.”
That was the case Sunday in an exhilarating clash between two of college basketball’s titans that featured 15 ties and 13 lead changes. But after a wildly entertaining first half in which both teams traded blows and shot better than 56 percent, Kansas’s defense took over in the latter stages of the game.
The Jayhawks switched to a triangle-and-two defense focused on slowing down Tar Heels center Tyler Zeller (12 points, six rebounds) down the stretch, a strategic move Self said he planned to unleash all along. He just wanted “to pick the right time.”
Kansas finished the game on a 12-0 run and the Tar Heels were held without a field goal for the final 5 minutes 46 seconds of the game, missing their final seven shots.
“We put their players that aren’t used to scoring in a position to score and confused them a little bit,” Taylor said.
The defining sequence began with Kansas clinging to a one-point lead with less than four minutes remaining. Kansas junior Elijah Johnson converted a turnover by North Carolina guard Reggie Bullock into the Jayhawks’ first three-pointer of the second half to make the score 71-67, a moment North Carolina Coach Roy Williams later acknowledged was the tipping point. But Kansas didn’t stop there.
A few possessions later, a gimpy John Henson — playing through a first-half ankle sprain — had his shot blocked by Withey, and Taylor raced down the floor for a fast-break lay-in that resulted in a three-point play. He hit the ensuing free throw and the pro-Kansas crowd roared.
North Carolina guard Stilman White, starting his second consecutive game after point guard Kendall Marshall was unable to play because of a broken right wrist suffered in the round of 32, tried to hit a finger roll over Withey on the ensuing possession. But coming off a 10-block performance Friday night, Withey swatted it away and guard Travis Releford capped off the Jayhawks’ surge with a dunk.
“It was a game of runs and we didn’t have one there at the end to come back at them,” Williams said.
“There’s no better feeling than I had right then,” Withey said of those crucial defining blocked shots. “I was freaking out because they led to dunks and that kind of sealed the game. It was definitely an out-of-body feeling. I just kept looking at the time on the clock hoping the time would run out.”
And with that, Withey was whisked away on a golf cart, Robinson’s arm around his shoulders as they began to think about their trip to New Orleans — a place very few expected them to be this March.