Kansas comes back, wins a title three years in the making

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Great Kansas Comeback, as it will forever be known in the history books, is more than a sultry, brilliant 20-minute stretch of Jayhawks basketball.

The championship KU captured on Monday night dates back to 2020, when the Jayhawks were a team that seemed headed for the program’s fourth national title.

Instead, it was KU’s 72-69 comeback over North Carolina on Monday that handed the fourth championship flag back to Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks insisted they would share it with the 2020 team as well.

“It’s partially won for them,” said coach Bill Self, who has now led Kansas to two of their four titles. “Because I always thought the 2020 team was better, more equipped to do well in the NCAA Tournament.”

Led by Devon Dotson and NBA first-round pick Udoka Azubuike, that 2020 team was, indeed, a team built for a championship. He was headed for the top seed and the favorite likely to win it all.

It was a team that never got their chance after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and ended the season.

Most of the key players in Monday’s title game comeback — David McCormack (15 points), Ochai Agbaji (12), Christian Braun (12) and Jalen Wilson (15) — were also on that team. The players that remained formed a balanced group of veterans who came into the game with a mind-boggling 973 games of college experience.

If any group was built not to lose their composure when things got bad, this group might have been it. But boy, things looked bleak for the Jayhawks as the first half ended.

Led by a dominant interior game from Armando Bacot and an 18-2 advantage in second-chance points, the Tar Heels posted 16 straight points to take a 16-point lead. Kansas seemed stuck in cement.

Self took advantage of the long halftime break to calm things down and give his players some fire. He tweaked the defense, having DaJuan Harris Jr. apply more pressure early on UNC’s ball handler RJ Davis. Kansas clogged up the passing lanes, forced the Tar Heels into rushing shots and locked them up.

That led to more runs, more quick break points (8) and turned a 16-point deficit into a six-point lead with 10 minutes remaining. When it was over, Kansas held on and completed the biggest comeback in title game history, topping the Loyola-Chicago 15-point rally against Cincinnati in 1963.

“With a group of guys that are so experienced and have been around and know each other so well, it’s kind of hard to see us nervous,” said Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot, who is in his sixth year of college. “The coach had a great message for us and he challenged us to be better and have more pride.”

COVID-19 also hurt Kansas last season. Some players got sick just as the tournament time approached. The Jayhawks came to Indy as the 3rd seed, but left after just two games, the second of which was a humiliating 34-point loss to USC.

They added Remy Martin, a transfer from Arizona State, but the rest of the group stayed the same. Martin became a key sixth man for the Jayhawks. On Monday, he found his shooting touch and scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half.

“They always kept me going and they always gave me confidence,” said Martin, who struggled with injuries earlier in the year. “And I couldn’t ask for a better group.”

The other guys, Self said, just got better as the season went on.

Agbaji adds Final Four Most Outstanding Player to his All-America title. McCormack went toe-to-toe with North Carolina’s double-double machine, Bacot. The Kansas big man dropped back to make a bucket for a 70-69 lead with 1:22 left. On the next possession, Bacot hurt his ankle. That opened the doors for McCormack to seal the game with another shot from close range, this one over Carolina’s less-strong defender, Brady Manek.

“Coach called the play and said we’d shoot it inside and we trust you and we have faith in you to deliver and get us a basket,” McCormack said. “I just prevailed, I made the basket happen. I thank you for allowing me to have that opportunity.”

And Kansas appreciates it.

The win won’t completely erase the problems that might be brewing in Lawrence. There’s an NCAA investigation into this program, and the possibility of serious penalties didn’t make this Kansas run any easier.

But for now, it’s time to celebrate.

This fourth national title won’t have a single player’s name stamped on it, like the 1988 championship belongs to Danny (Manning) and the Miracles or the way 2008 was the product of Mario Chalmers’ last game-tying 3-pointer.

This, Self insisted, was more of a group effort.

Quite a large group, too.

This group of Jayhawks wants to share it with Azubuike, who is in the NBA, and Dotson, who was in the Superdome to see Kansas pull out the win.

“Winning when your team had to fight and coming back the way they did and showing so much courage makes this one of the best,” Self said.

He was talking about Monday.

He could also have been talking about the last three seasons.

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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