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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kansas makes stunning second-half comeback to win national title

Remy Martin and Kansas erased a 16-point deficit to beat North Carolina on Monday in New Orleans. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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NEW ORLEANS — Kansas, that curiously quiet No. 1 seed that crept and zoomed through the March Madness draw while all the noise and hype blared elsewhere, saved its most evocative quiet for the closing Monday night. It went hushed and dormant in a haunted first half against North Carolina in the men’s national championship game at the Superdome, trailing by 16 points so that a witness might have forgotten it was there.

What a backdrop that became, sure to become common knowledge among the rock-chalk crowd all over the land, because by the time Kansas had barreled back like some freight train across the Plains and had won a 72-69 spellbinder against a foe that had risen to become pure hell, Kansas had forged the biggest comeback in the 83 championship games to date.

For 59 years, Loyola Chicago had held on to that honor born of dishonor, having recovered from 15 points down with 14 minutes left in 1963 to nudge the great Cincinnati. Now come these Jayhawks (34-6), through the depths to reach the clouds, through a 34-12 rampage that took a 38-22 chasm to a 56-50 lead, through a frantic last three minutes that began tied 65-65, through two large inside buckets by big man David McCormack with 1:21 left and with 22 seconds left, and through one last three-point shot that flew and missed at the horn.

All of it provided a fourth national championship for the Kansas basketball kingdom and a second for Coach Bill Self, whose two titles have come in his Kansas seasons Nos. 5 and 19. Oddly, Self has won both through severe inconvenience, counting the nine-point deficit to Memphis with 2:12 to play in the 2008 championship game in San Antonio.

Jayhawks fans took to the streets of Lawerence, Kansas, on April 4 after the men’s national championship win over North Carolina. (Video: The Washington Post)

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“These things don’t fall off trees,” Self said of national titles. “They’re hard to get.”

Does he ever know. He has ridden the queasy rides of March Madness enough to have built a voluminous history rich in torment, so that he could tell his team at halftime, “Would you rather be down 15 points with 20 minutes left," meaning the halftime score of 40-25, “or nine down with two left?” Said star Ochai Agbaji, “Coach, he obviously challenged us and he was amped up in there.” From there, the defense would mimic the energy of its leader DaJuan Harris, hold North Carolina to 27.5 percent shooting and 29 points in the second half, hold Caleb Love to 5-for-24 shooting, and hold RJ Davis to 5 for 17, until Self wound up calling it “as good a defense as a team can play, in the second half.”

It would begin with a smile.

“He was looking at me,” guard Christian Braun said of McCormack, “and I was like, ‘Why are you smiling, dude? We’re down 15.' He was telling me, like, 'Keep your head up, keep going, we’ve been here before. I was like, 'Man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before, down 15 in a national championship game, I definitely never been there."

They got out of there with a breathless surge, their defense seeding brilliant transition. “They were getting a lot of transition buckets,” Love said. “They were getting a lot of points in the paint.” They charged with such haste that their giant throng of fans, who had started to make that muted sound that cheers baskets in a big deficit, started to comprehend the whoosh of it and make great roars.

Points sprang from all over the court so that by the end, the boxscore would look like some symphony, the numbers thick and pretty all over it: McCormack and Jalen Wilson with 15 points (with 10 rebounds for McCormack), Remy Martin 14 with a crucial 4 for 6 from afar, Braun with 12 points and 12 rebounds, Most Outstanding Player Agbaji with his 12. By the 10:53 mark, the Jayhawks had reached 50-50. By the 10:18 mark, they had a good-grief lead of six.

Yet North Carolina (29-10) had found a strong stomach in its preposterous win at Duke on March 5 and the rapids it had weathered as a No. 8 seed whose draw got rude with two No. 1 seeds (Baylor and Kansas), a defending Final Four team (UCLA) and — what? — another bout with its disliked rival (Duke) after the Tar Heels thought they’d finished with that. They fought on Monday night through Love’s twisted ankle, Puff Johnson’s whacked stomach and the ankle problems big man Armando Bacot brought from the towering semifinal with Duke. “I mean, the last 24 hours,” he said, “probably 15 of them were just me trying to get my ankle better.”

That ankle seemed to matter on a big play 50 seconds from the ending, with the score 70-69 to Kansas, when Bacot slipped on the floor and rolled his ankle and fell into a turnover. The ball went down and went in to McCormack again, against the excellent graduate transfer Brady Manek. “Game’s on the line, you’ve got adrenaline pumping,” McCormack said, and after it took him two shots and one mighty rebound to score with 1:21 left, it took one sweet little turnaround to score at 0:22.

North Carolina tried two three-point shots from there, then got a chance at a third on a goofy turnover with 4.3 seconds left when a sliver of Harris’s foot nudged the sideline. It set up a play for Manek, but he stumbled going around a baseline screen. It left Love to navigate around the top of the arc, not the worst fate this North Carolina tournament, but his shot fell well short. His team had come all the way from a spate of thumpings and routs in mid-winter — it lost its nine games by an aggregate 147 points, four of them by 20 or more — to the doorstep of forever. “And so I can’t remember a time in my life," first-year coach Hubert Davis said, “where I should be disappointed, but I’m just filled with so much pride [in his players].”

Confetti fell, and the Kansas crowd had gone all the way from muffled to booming across one exhilarating hour. Kansas had forged through a tournament where all the clamor was elsewhere, on Mike Krzyzewski’s impending retirement and Saint Peter’s mind-bending run. The roulette wheel of March Madness had come back to Kansas again, the way it might for a program that wins almost 82 percent of its games across two decades. Madness had smiled after so many years of harrumphs, from the Final Fours of 2012 and 2018 to the hard Elite Eights of 2004, 2007, 2011, 2016 and 2017, all those 33-3s and 33-5s for which the surly tournament had no respect.

“I do feel that as many good teams as we’ve had over time, that we could have had more than one," Self said. “I never felt pressure from anybody that we had to do this, but I knew with what we’ve had that we easily could have done more. I actually think it means a lot to me.”

Way back when, the score had stood 22-22. The night had looked like it might have some drama up ahead, yet a bloodletting began right there. From the 5:48 mark to 2:11 before halftime, North Carolina had a 16-0 joyride. Kansas started to look strangely helpless and strangely rattled, especially as McCormack picked up a second foul. North Carolina started to look fully realized, almost placid in its confidence. Manek hit threes twice to reach 28-22. From there, it built: Bacot made a free throw. Davis made three of them. Johnson passed along the baseline to Bacot underneath, always such a good idea, and Bacot scored inside. Davis made a layup on the right. Johnson got a steal and flew down the court and missed against steep opposition, but Bacot trailed and rebounded and got fouled and made two free throws.

By halftime, Bacot already had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds — he would end on 15 and 15 — and it would take some sort of unusual force to surmount this.

That force was present.

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