ST. LOUIS – Much of the talk leading into the Midwest Region semifinal between No. 2 seed Kansas and No. 11 seed North Carolina State centered around the Wolfpack’s late-season resurgence, a run that had conjured up memories of Jim Valvano and the school’s glory days.
But what became apparent Friday night after Kansas held on late for a 60-57 victory is that the Jayhawks are in the midst of their own resurrection – progressing from a team many felt would be Coach Bill Self’s least talented since coming to Lawrence, Kan., in 2003 into a squad that suddenly finds itself on the cusp of a Final Four.
The Jayhawks’ big men ultimately proved too powerful for North Carolina State, leading Kansas through a slow start and a second straight lackluster offensive performance for its 11th win in 12 games. Kansas will now face No. 1 seed North Carolina on Sunday, which is sure to be an emotionally charged clash because the Tar Heels are led by former Kansas Coach Roy Williams.
After this latest triumph, though, current Jayhawks Coach Bill Self and his players could only shake their heads at how lucky they got when they looked at a box score that revealed Kansas made just one of their 14 three-pointers and gave up 21 offensive rebounds. The theme of the night was that Kansas is making its 21st appearance in a region final without having played its best basketball since the NCAA tournament began last week.
“According to the shot chart, we made two shots for the game outside of five feet. For the game. For the game,” Self said, emphasizing the point. “That’s unbelievable … and somehow you win. We can’t be like that Sunday, but I think that should give us some confidence.”
The good news was that other than C.J. Leslie’s team-high 18 points, North Carolina State had more trouble putting the ball in the basket, hitting a season-low 28.4 percent of its shots. But Kansas’s win didn’t come without some nail-biting moments in the waning seconds.
After leading by 10 in the second half, the Jayhawks watched their lead dwindle to one following a dunk by North Carolina State’s C.J. Williams with 1 minute 21 seconds remaining. Kansas then committed a shot clock violation on its ensuing possession, a sequence that set the Wolfpack up for what would have been an improbable comeback.
But North Carolina State failed to convert on three different possessions in the final 42 seconds when it had the chance to tie the score or take the lead.
First, with Kansas up 58-57, Wolfpack forward Scott Wood (12 points) missed a three-pointer and sophomore C.J. Leslie was then blocked by Jayhawks center Jeff Withey on the putback attempt. Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor then missed the front end of a one-and-one, but the ball bounced off the hands of North Carolina State’s Richard Howell and rolled out of bounds.
Taylor then fed guard Elijah Johnson for a lay-in off the ensuing inbounds play to put the Jayhawks up 60-57 with 13 seconds left. After a timeout by Wolfpack Coach Mark Gottfried, Wood stepped on the sideline while catching a pass, giving the ball back to Kansas.
Still, North Carolina State had one last attempt to tie the score in the closing seconds after Kansas star Thomas Robinson also missed the front end of a one-and-one. But Howell’s desperation heave fell short and the Jawhawks faithful could breath a sigh of relief.
Robinson, a Washington native, continued his remarkable season, finishing with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Center Jeff Withey, meanwhile, was a menace defensively, ending the game with 10 blocked shots, tied for the second-highest total in NCAA tournament history.
North Carolina State Coach Mark Gottfried conceded that Withey “really changed the game. His length bothered us and it affected how we shot around the basket.”
“I was kind of just in the zone,” Withey added.
After falling behind 13-3 early in the first half, Kansas started the second half on a 9-2 run that stretched its lead to 10 after entering halftime down by one. Before the first media timeout, Leslie had picked up his fourth foul, relegating him to the bench for the next 8:33.
The Wolfpack then went more than seven minutes without a field goal midway through the second half. Leslie ended the drought with a three-pointer when he finally re-entered the game – even as he battled cramps upon returning to the contest — but he seemed to be the only North Carolina State player capable of hitting an open jumper.
“We had a lot of good looks that we just couldn’t knock down,” Gottfried said. “It was just one of those nights.”
Related: Box score: Kentucky 102, Indiana 90