NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In a national championship game nobody at Kansas will soon forget, Bill Self went from the Hall of Fame coach who far too often failed on the big stage to the brilliant mastermind of the biggest comeback in NCAA title-game history.
Blitzed by North Carolina for most of the first 20 minutes Monday night, and after digging a seemingly insurmountable 40-25 deficit, the senior-heavy Jayhawks rallied for a 72-69 victory over the Tar Heels inside the boisterous Superdome to raise another long-awaited banner to the rafters of historic Allen Fieldhouse.
“I think when you’re the all-time winningest program — just by a small margin — and when the inventor of the game was your first coach, and the likes of Adolph Rupp comes from Kansas and Dean Smith comes from Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain comes from Kansas, the expectations are where being good is OK but it’s not enough,” Self said.
“Nobody’s ever put pressure on me that we’ve got to win another one,” he added, “but I think I put pressure on myself knowing that this place deserves more than what we have won.”
The Jayhawks, who trailed the Tar Heels by 16 late in the first half Monday night, eclipsed Loyola of Chicago’s 15-point comeback to beat Cincinnati in overtime in 1963 for the biggest in title game history. They also set a record by overcoming the biggest halftime deficit in a Final Four game.
“With the group of guys as experienced as this and been around and know each other so well, it’s kind of hard to see us get rattled. And I think we bounced back at halftime,” Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot said. “Coach had a great message for us, and he challenged us to be better, and to have more pride. And we did that.”
David McCormack finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, dueling in the paint all night with ailing Carolina big man Armando Bacot. Remy Martin poured in 11 of his 14 points after the break, while Jalen Wilson had 15 points — including a couple of big baskets early in the second half, when the Jayhawks managed to turn a blowout into a ballgame.
“Coach, he obviously challenged us and was amped,” said the Jayhawks’ Ochai Agbaji, “but it was a matter of us playing our game and executing in the second half and taking away what they were getting at in the first half.”
It’s the fourth title for the Jayhawks and the second for Self, who claimed his first when another bunch of comeback kids rallied to beat Memphis in overtime in 2008. And this one came on the same Superdome floor where Kentucky denied him in the finals a decade ago, one of the many heartbreaks that Self and his team have experienced over the years.
There was the 2010 team that spent much of the season ranked No. 1 but lost in the second round of the tournament, and the following year the Jayhawks didn’t lose until late January but were dumped by VCU in the Elite Eight.
There was also the 2013 overtime loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16, and back-to-back years in which Kansas failed to make it out of the tournament’s opening weekend. More recently, there was the 2018 Final Four blowout by Villanova — which Kansas avenged Saturday night — and second-round exits in each of the previous two NCAA Tournaments.
The Tar Heels were poised to add to the heartache on Monday night.
They dominated the offensive glass in the first half, and scored second-chance baskets nearly at will, while Kansas went through long periods of offensive ineptitude. Martin was 1 of 5 from the field, his only make a clanked 3 off the backboard, and Wilson and Christian Braun were a combined 2 for 13 from the floor.
At halftime, Self referenced the Jayhawks’ 2008 national championship comeback with his team, asking if they’d rather be down by nine with 2 minutes left — as they were that night — or down by 15 with 20 minutes still to play.
It took about 10 minutes to learn their answer.
The trio of Braun, McCormack and Wilson went to work to start the second half, wiping out North Carolina’s hard-earned lead and finally pulling even when Agbaji — the Final Four MVP — converted a three-point play with 10:53 to go.
It was a back-and-forth affair until McCormack gathered his own rebound and scored with 1:16 left. Bacot turned the ball over at the other end when his sprained ankle from the semifinals against Duke finally gave out. Then, McCormack added another basket with 22.3 seconds left to give the Jayhawks some breathing room.
“Game’s on the line,” McCormack said. “Coach talks about keeping the ball high going right back up. That’s what was going through my mind. We work on tough shots every day. I work on both hands, get a quick basket, get back on defense.”
Caleb Love and Puff Johnson both missed tying 3-point tries, then North Carolina got one last chance when Dajuan Harris turned the ball over with 4.3 seconds to go. The Tar Heels again got the ball to Love, the hero of their dramatic win over the Blue Devils, but his shot missed as the clock expired and confetti began to fall from the sky.
The comeback broke the record for the largest halftime deficit overcome in a championship game, set by Kentucky in 1998, when it rallied from down by 10 to beat Utah. It also broke the record for any Final Four halftime comeback of 11, set by Duke’s rally past Maryland in 2001 and Temple, when it beat Kansas State in the 1958 third-place game.
Perhaps more importantly, it wiped away any argument that Self will go down as one of the game’s greatest coaches.
“That wasn’t on my mind,” Self said, “but I do feel as many good teams we’ve had over time, we could have had more than one, so even though — like I said earlier — I never felt pressure from anybody that we had to do this, but I knew with what we have had that we could have very easily done more. So I actually think it means a lot to me.”
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