Inside the Kansas Jayhawks’ surprise second-half comeback for the basketball national championship

Sports

As he sat just a few rows behind the Kansas bench at Caesars Superdome on Monday night, Mario Chalmers tried not to squirm.

The program he had participated in in the 2008 national basketball championship had entered the first round with a 15-point deficit. Chalmers, the hero of the team that hit the three-pointer to take the game into extra time in the win against Memphis, hopes the Jayhawks will remember what is still possible.

“I just thought, ‘Keep believing,'” Chalmers said after Kansas’ 72-69 win over North Carolina. And I know they will be able to do it in the end.”

The line between the joy of a hard-fought victory and the agony of suffering is almost thin. Self, who won his second national title on Monday, knows all too well after the 2012 defeat to Kentucky in the championship match and a lopsided loss against Villanova in the 2018 Final Four. But his first national title team with Chalmers also went down in the second round, albeit in a more dire scenario. and pressing, so he challenged his 2022 players in the dressing room.

“We were disappointed with the way we played in the first half,” Self said after a 16-point comeback, the biggest deficit the winning team has ever overcome in a national championship game in NCAA history. ‘ because that’s what happened in ’08. They all said 15.”

The players also looked around the dressing room and started shouting, “We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”

A season-saving return — which further cemented the legacy of the old coach — was born at that time. But there’s more to it than flying bodies and passionate college athletes who put up a powerful offensive against the North Carolina squad that had sacked Baylor, UCLA and Duke en route to the championship game in Hubert Davis’ freshman year.

The Jayhawks know how much energy North Carolina expends in the 69-possession affair, back and forth against rival Duke 48 hours before Monday’s game. Although the Tar Heels looked undefeated in the first half, the Jayhawks waited for the fatigue to come.

“We really tried [to speed them up]. We thought they would be exhausted from yesterday’s game. The last round was what we needed.”

Early in the second half, Ochai Agbaji — who had just five shots in the first half with Leaky Black chasing the Kansas star — was more aggressive. His shot from the screen frustrated North Carolina, who played more cautiously with Black trying to avoid his fourth foul and Armando Bacot limping on the injured right ankle he picked up late in the win over the Blue Devils. With shots falling from everywhere — Kansas outscored North Carolina 31-10 in the first 10 minutes of the second half and also outscored the Tar Heels 20-8 in the paint during that stretch — UNC looked stunned by the way the game turned around. Just five minutes after the break, Black came on to the bench with his fourth foul.

But KU’s defensive pressure is also critical. North Carolina only made five three-pointers throughout the night. In the second half, however, North Carolina completed a 2-for-12 shot from outside the arc and missed seven three-pointers on the right.

Second-half efforts of Jalen Wilson (11 points), David McCormack (nine points), Christian Braun (10 points), Remy Martin (11 points) and Agbaji (four points) put the Kansas side ahead of North Carolina 47-29 after the break. But the Jayhawks’ defensive discipline also made one of last month’s most explosive teams look subdued.

“It was ‘Rocky,'” Self said. “Just punched, punched, punched. Almost kicked out, and somehow, you keep fighting.”

Six months ago, Self wasn’t sure he had the team to do this. He honors rumors of his 2021-22 squad, which has brought back Agbaji, McCormack and Braun and also added Martin, the All-Pac-12 star at Arizona State, but Self isn’t prepared to compare him to his first and only national player. . title team.

“That team in 2008, they played better when they had [difficulty],” Self told ESPN on the Big 12 media day in October. “We have some things in common, but I don’t know if it’s really going down, how much?

big pa this team will enjoy that [difficulty] when the team likes it.

With 3 minutes, 6 seconds to play and the score tied Monday night on the biggest stage in college basketball, however, Martin hit a 3-pointer from a corner and McCormack fired a pair of shots to keep Kansas ahead. The Jayhawks are not shrinking.

Agbaji even laughed at Self, who struggled on the sideline as North Carolina gained another possession in the dying seconds of a 3-point game after a review showed that Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. has stepped out of bounds.

“[Self] was drawing something, and he was so intense and his lips were going dry,” Agbaji said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa… We get it, Coach.'”