Mar 23, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack forward C.J. Leslie (back) shoots as Kansas Jayhawks center Jeff Withey (5) defends during the first half of the semifinals in the midwest region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Edward Jones Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE
last week I looked at games 10-6 of last year, and now here is the much anticipated conclusion:
5. vs. Kentucky, April 2
Though they lost by 8, Kansas fought back from another early deficit to make it just a 5 point game with a minute and a half left, yet another testament to the spirit of this year's team. Kansas withstood terrible offensive games from both their bigs (and really a terrible offensive tournament by Thomas Robinson), but Jeff Withey showed he was really the best interior defender in the country, setting the record for blocks in an NCAA tournament and limiting Anthony Davis to just one field goal, a baseline jumper. Had Kentucky not shot 42% from three, or not shot as well as they did on jump shots period, the game would have been a lot closer late. And I know which of the teams and coaches I'd take late in a close game. But as it was it was a chance for the Jayhawks to end their season with their heads held high, and give a great fanbase something to be proud of.
4. vs. North Carolina, March 25
With no Kendall Marshall, Kansas was actually a favorite in the game, but the absence of the (undeserving) Cousy Award winner didn't stop the Tar Heels from scoring 47 points and shooting 73% from two in the first half. Fortunately, Kansas was able to score 47 in the first half as well, setting up one of the dominating second halves of the year. Midway through the second half, Bill Self switched to a triangle and two and UNC's once potent offense was neutralized. With 12:05 left in the game, Carolina scored their 61st point. They scored just 6 more the entire game, and only made two field goals in the final 12 minutes. For a team that scored almost 1.15 points per possession in the regular season, it was an unprecedented drought. For the Jayhawks, it was a stifling defensive effort that came seemingly out of nowhere, and it propelled them to a 2-0 record over Roy Williams, and an unthinkable return to the Final Four.
3. vs. Purdue, March 18
When the brackets were released, I might as well have been wearing a St. Mary's jersey for how much I wanted them to beat Purdue in the first round. My worst fears were confirmed early as Robbie Hummel poured in 22 points in the first half, including a three to end the frame. The Boilermakers led by nine for much of the first ten minutes, and again stretched it to that many in the first few minutes of the second half. They maintained that lead all the way through, with Kansas unable to get it under four for much of the half, until Kansas finally took the lead with just 23.5 seconds left. They then avoided a Robbie Hummel three with just under 10 seconds left and, after Tyshawn Taylor dunked the ball on a breakaway after maybe - maybe - having the chance to run out the clock, Ryne Smith had a pretty good look considering the situation at the buzzer, but it missed off the backboard and, unlike other Kansas teams with more talent, this group averted disaster.
2. vs Missouri, February 25
With a narrow loss in Columbia, Kansas figured to win comfortably at home and assume control of the Big 12 race. But it was not to be as the Tigers leaped out to a 12 point lead at half, and one that balooned to 15 with just over 10 minutes left (with the time elapsing being worth much more than the extra three points, of course).
I kept telling my friend sitting next to me that we weren't 13 points better over a half, we weren't 10 points better over ten minutes, etc. etc. We should have known this team had a national title run in them on that day, because the Jayhawks slowly but surely crept back into the game. A Conner Tehan three here, a Thomas Robinson post move there. Robinson was at his player of the year best in that game, scoring 10 points and grabbing 5 rebounds in the final 9 minutes. He made the crucial three point play to tie it in the last seconds of regulation, and blocked Phil Pressey's attempted layup at the buzzer. In the last border war for at least the forseeable future, in a game where Kansas needed a 15 point comeback in about 10 minutes to secure an 8th straight conference title, Thomas Robinson put perhaps the least talented team of Bill Self's tenure on his back and willed them into overtime. The player of the year voting committee should have been forced to watch that half over and over again until they came to their senses and realized he was the player of the year.
And yet, it still almost got away from them again, as just the final 40 seconds of overtime featured six lead changes, finally changing for good when Tyshawn Taylor, who had missed key free throws down the stretch in the loss at Missouri, hit two big ones with just 8 seconds left to give Kansas the lead. Missouri's final attempt wasn't taken in time as the greatest coach on Earth Frank Haith couldn't quite get a coherent play called, and Kansas all but clinched consecutive Big 12 title #8.
1. vs. Ohio State, March 31
Though Kansas had beaten the Buckeyes once before, Ohio State was the second pre-tournament favorite and they had Jared Sullinger for this one. Clearly Kansas, who had had its struggles in the previous three tournament games, stood no shot.
And for awhile, it was so. Before you could blink it was 19-11, then 24-13, and 32-19. Kansas ended the first half on a high note, with Withey blocking an Aaron Craft shot and Releford making a layup as the horn sounded, bringing an 11 point deficit into the single digits; a tremendous moral victory given how the first half went.
I'll admit I thought I was watching the last half of KU basketball that night, but I hadn't learned my lesson yet. In just six minutes Kansas turned that 9 point deficit into a tie game, as the Buckeyes scored just four points over the first seven minutes of the second half. The Buckeyes actually got the lead back up to six with 5:22 left, but again the Jayhawks were up to the challenge. A Kevin Young block went for an Elijah layup, Robinson and Withey owned the defensive glass, and with 1:37 left Travis Releford made two free throws to give Kansas a lead they would never relinquish. Kansas finally properly executed the foul when up three strategy, and Aaron Craft's attempted trickery went unrewarded as Kansas advanced to the national title game, helping cap off one of the most historic seasons in KU history. A year in which nothing was expected, but everything was delivered.