NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As the Kansas players sadly left the Superdome floor at halftime Monday night, trailing 15 points, mired in foul trouble and stunned by a pale blue North Carolina hurricane North, David McCormack was all smiles.
The portly Jayhawks senior center looked around the locker room, clapped his hands, patted his teammates on the back and told them they’d been there before, coming back from deficits all season long, including in the NCAA tournament.
Still, there were more than a few sideways glances that greeted him.
“I was like, man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before,” laughed his teammate, Christian Braun. “15 down in the national championship game? I’ve definitely never been there before.”
By the end of the night, the Jayhawks had been somewhere else they hadn’t been in a long time: standing atop a center court podium, blue confetti at their feet, after being crowned national champions. .
The rich tradition of Kansas basketball, where the past two champions are bathed in divine light, Danny Manning and the Miracles, and Mario Chalmers’ miracle 3-pointer, has company in fulfilled faith after the Jayhawks staged the biggest comeback in the NCAA championship history. to beat North Carolina, 72-69, before 69,423 fans.
The Jayhawks, once trailing by 16 points, fought off one late hit after another from North Carolina, which left everything, including the contents of Puff Johnson’s stomach, on the floor.
Kansas ultimately had to survive a last-second flurry of 3-point attempts, the last just before the buzzer by Caleb Love, who had rescued North Carolina twice in the tournament, after which the Jayhawks ran to the court to celebrate with McCormack, Braun and others yelling at their fans.
It was easy to understand the euphoria.
The perpetually snake-bitten Jayhawks, who have a long history of NCAA disappointments, including two years ago when they were ranked No. 1 in the country before the pandemic wiped out the tournament, put those regrets behind them. It was fitting, in a sense, that they were led by McCormack, whose career arc has mirrored his uneven tournament fortunes.
The victory was the first championship for the Jayhawks since 2008, when they outscored Memphis in overtime, sent there on Chalmers’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“It would be special to win, regardless,” said Self, who added that he was overwhelmed and exhausted. “But winning when your team had to fight and come back like they did and show so much courage makes this one of the best.”
“I thought this would be good,” he continued. “And this is so much better than I thought it would be.”
Self became the first Kansas coach to win more than one title, distinguishing himself among some of the game’s most renowned leaders, from James Naismith, who is credited with inventing the game, to Phog Allen, for whom the Allen is named. Fieldhouse, and Larry. Brown, who is the only coach to win NCAA and NBA championships.
Whether Kansas will be able to defend its crown is less certain. The NCAA’s glacial judicial process may be nearing a final verdict in a case stemming from a federal bribery scandal, from which five Level 1 indictments have been levied against Self’s program.
Oklahoma State was banned from this year’s tournament and Arizona, Louisville and Auburn all issued self-imposed bans in the wake of the same scandal. None of them have been accused of violations as serious as Kansas has been.
Those questions, however, are for another day.
On Monday night, there was another dazzling finish to a Final Four under the roof of the Superdome, and for the first time in three years, the festivities were backed by a boisterous stadium packed with fans. This environment has often been a blessing for North Carolina, which won here in 1982 when Michael Jordan took a shot off the wing, and again in 1993 when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout he didn’t have to seal a win. of the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels, who survived an epic battle with Duke on Saturday that sent rival coach Mike Krzyzewski into retirement, looked poised for another celebration as they rallied from an early deficit and threatened to run Kansas off the floor.
Second-year point guard RJ Davis was tearing up the Kansas defense, center Armando Bacot had put McCormack and his backup Mitch Lightfoot in foul trouble, and the Tar Heels had taken a 40-25 halftime lead. .
It’s fair to wonder if Kansas has been sticking pins in a voodoo doll the way their opponents have been. Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner injured his knee late in an overtime win over San Diego State and missed the Bluejays’ narrow loss to Kansas. Villanova guard Justin Moore tore his right Achilles tendon in the closing seconds of a win over Houston, and his defense might have helped against Agbaji, who made his first six 3-pointers against the Wildcats in their national semifinal.
Bacot then fell to the ground at the end of North Carolina’s win over Duke on Saturday night and had to be helped to the bench. He returned with some caution, but on Sunday he proclaimed himself ready. “My status for tomorrow is ‘I’m playing,'” Bacot said, adding. “They would have to cut off my right leg so I can’t play.”
Bacot played heroically, not quite himself, limping from time to time, but nonetheless going toe-to-toe and chest-to-chest with McCormack, two heavyweights pummeling each other from the opening pitch.
Down the stretch, after Kansas had moved into the lead, North Carolina was also fighting attrition. Brady Manek was dropped by an early elbow to the head, Love had sprained his ankle and Johnson, after stepping in to take over, fell to his knees a short time later and vomited on the court.
However, North Carolina was ready to survive all of that.
Davis had woken the Tar Heels from a 6-point deficit to tie at 57 when he sent in Johnson, who hit a 3-pointer from the corner off his own bench. And Manek put North Carolina back in front, 69-68, when he deflected Love’s drive for the basket with 1:41 left.
McCormack responded when he picked up his own rebound and put the ball in. Then it would be Bacot’s turn. He scored 15 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, becoming the first player to have six double-doubles in a single tournament, and used his athleticism to frustrate McCormack. After taking out McCormack near the top of the key, Bacot drove to the right of him, across the lane. But as he approached the basket, Bacot’s sensitive right ankle gave way. He landed with a thud on the ground, writhing in pain after spinning the ball with 50 seconds remaining.
Bacot got up and limped to the defensive end of the court until officials called the play dead so he could leave.
“I thought I really got the angle I wanted,” Bacot said. “I thought it would have been an easy basket. And then I sprained my ankle while he was going up.”
Without Bacot in the game, Kansas, leading 70-69, went straight to McCormack, who pushed past Manek to put the Jayhawks ahead, 72-69, with 22 seconds remaining. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
North Carolina pushed the ball up and Love missed a 3-pointer, but Davis grabbed the rebound and sent to Johnson, who missed another 3-pointer. Manek grabbed another rebound, the 24th offensive rebound for North Carolina, but threw the ball out of bounds.
Even with that fumble, the Tar Heels got some respite when Dajuan Harris caught the inbound pass and went out of bounds for Kansas. North Carolina set up a play for Manek, but he stumbled and wasn’t open. Instead, the ball went to Love, who had rescued the Tar Heels against UCLA with a pair of late 3-pointers and converted another that sank Duke on Saturday night.
But this one, harassed and harassed, missed the mark.
An instant later, the Jayhawks jumped off the bench, this time all with smiles.