KU claims championship with thrilling comeback
11: 56 PM ET
Jeff BorzelloESPN Staff Writer
- Basketball recruiting insider.
- Joined ESPN in 2014.
- Graduate of University of Delaware.
Fifteen-point deficit? Title at stake? Smiling in a locker room?
Christian Braun was confused. I was like, “Why are you smiling, dude?” We’re down 15,” Braun said. Braun said, “He was telling us to keep our heads up, keep going, it’ll all be alright. I was like, “Man, I don’t know if this has ever happened to me before.” Down 15 in a national championship game. It’s something I’ve never seen. “
But McCormack backed up his confidence, hitting the two biggest baskets of the game for Kansas and helping the Jayhawks overcome a 16-point first-half deficit to beat North Carolina 72-69 for the program’s fourth national championship and first since 2008.
Concerns about North Carolina coming out flat after the emotional semifinal win over Duke on Saturday seemed warranted in the opening minutes. Kansas scored the game’s first seven points, with the Jayhawks’ two Saturday stars — Ochai Agbaji and McCormack — carrying their momentum over. Agbaji hit a 3 to start the game and McCormack was making an impact at both ends of the floor, even beating Armando Bacot to a loose ball by diving on the floor. The 9-3 start combined with Bacot’s slow pregame movement gave the impression that this was Kansas’ title to lose. That was the last time the Jayhawks had any momentum in the first period.
Bacot had suffered an ankle injury in the second half. He started to feel better and get more active. He had a jump hook coming out of the under-16 timeout and assisted a Leaky Black layup two possessions later after R.J. Davis and Bacot each saved the ball from going out of bounds. Remy Martin‘s banked 3-pointer with 10: 27 left gave Kansas an 18-14 lead — but North Carolina outscored the Jayhawks 25-7 the rest of the half. Kansas made just three shots from the field over that span and finished the half making 4 of 14 layup attempts.
Agbaji cut Carolina’s lead to 13 with a pull-up jumper with 23 seconds left, but in a play indicative of the first half, Puff Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and laid the ball in as the first half came to a close.
According to the NCAA, North Carolina’s 15-point edge at the break was tied for the fourth-biggest halftime lead in championship game history. It was the biggest halftime deficit in a national championship game.
Entering Monday, Kansas had trailed at halftime just once in this year’s NCAA tournament. It was in the Elite Eight against Miami, when the Jayhawks turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 26-point win. They outscored the Hurricanes 47-15 in the final 20 minutes of that one. Coach Bill Self stated that the main point he made at halftime was “We need to be better.” “
On Monday, there was a similar lack in inspiration. Self said he asked his team one question at the final timeout before halftime: “Which would be harder, being down nine with two minutes left or being down 15 with 20? “
It was a reference to Kansas’s last national championship, when the Jayhawks came from nine points down with 2: 12 left to beat Memphis in 2008.
“He clearly challenged us and was amped up there,” Agbaji stated. “It was about us playing our game and taking away their goals in the first half. “
Kansas came out of halftime on a tear, with McCormack dunking it emphatically on the Jayhawks’ opening possession. After two Caleb Love buckets pushed the lead back to 12 and seemed to slow Kansas’ momentum, the Jayhawks went on a 12-1 run to get within one. It could have been worse. Black fouled Agbaji on back-toback possessions, resulting in Black’s third- and fourth fouls. However, Black made only one of his five free throw attempts.
The Jayhawks were having success on the open floor. After only scoring two points in the first half, North Carolina turned the ball over four more times in the second half. Kansas scored six quick fast-break points by forcing jumpers that led to long rebounds.
An Agbaji three-point play with 10: 53 left tied the score at 50, and Kansas extended its lead to six after a Martin 3 and a Jalen Wilson three-point play. It ultimately was a 31-10 run to start the second half.
Carolina’s response was highlighted by the unlikeliest of players. Johnson, who scored eight points total over the previous four games, buried a corner 3 off a Davis drive to tie the score at 57. Davis was without Black and needed someone from the Tar Heels bench to make plays on both ends of the court — Johnson did that. He scored seven straight Carolina points at one point in the second period.
” Johnson, who was vomiting on the court and left the game late at the end of the second half, said that his whole year had been about being ready for when his number was called. “I can honestly say that I gave it all I had. “
Kansas’ second-half catalyst was also a bench player, Martin. Martin was a person who divided opinions throughout his college career. Inarguably a talented offensive player, there were questions whether he would be able to translate his game from Arizona State, where he was a two-time All-Pac-12 player and averaged 19.1 points in both 2020 and 2021, to Kansas, where his scoring wouldn’t be needed as often.
After scoring in double figures in 10 of his first 12 games in Lawrence, he had a 21-game stretch in which he missed 10 games through injury and averaged 3.2 points in the other 11 games. He then came alive down the stretch of the season, scoring 12 points in the Big 12 title game and averaging 19.3 points in the first three NCAA tournament games. After a win over St. John’s in December, Self was asked to reflect by ESPN on his Martin experience.
“He has a flair for the game. He likes it when it’s tight.” Self stated. I like that. He’ll fight back, I think. I believe the experiment will work out well. “
That might have been an understatement in retrospect.
Martin looked tentative on Monday night. Martin looked tentative early on Monday night. His first three shots failed to go in and he hesitated when he attempted a wide-open 3. He was Kansas’ best player in halftime, thanks to his banked-in 3 pointer in the first quarter. Martin had 11 points after halftime, including three 3-pointers and three go-ahead baskets.
” This year has been difficult for me individually, with injuries and trying to find my groove. Martin said that it was great. “In the second period, I just came in there and tried to make something happen. I shot the shots confidently and tried to make plays. “
This was not a college basketball game with just a few runs. It was a game full of punches, counterpunches and game-changing haymakers.
Whichever team made the final run was going to win the national championship.
McCormack hit a jump hook with 1: 20 left following an offensive rebound to give Kansas a one-point lead. Bacot tried to drive past McCormack on Carolina’s next possession but fell and was forced to leave the game. Bacot didn’t return to the field on Monday, unlike the semifinal game against Duke. He needed to be lifted off the podium for postgame news conferences.
With Bacot out of the game, Kansas went right back to McCormack, and he hit another jump hook with 22 seconds left to push the lead to three.
Love and Johnson missed game-tying 3-point attempts, and Brady Manek‘s pass after an offensive rebound rolled out of bounds. But Carolina would have one more chance, as Dajuan Harris Jr. stepped out of bounds with 4.3 seconds left after catching Kansas’ inbounds pass.
Love had made big shots all tournament and attempted a contested 3-point shot over Braun, but it was short-lived as time expired.
Carolina’s backcourt duo of Love and Davis had been so effective all tournament but struggled to get in a rhythm on Monday night. They shot a combined 10-for-41 from the field, including 1-for-13 from 3-point range. Bacot had 15 points and 15 rebounds, becoming the first player in NCAA history with six double-doubles in one tournament.
Meanwhile, McCormack and Wilson each finished with 15 points, but it was Agbaji (14 points) who took home Most Outstanding Player honors.
“He is the most accomplished player we have had at our university ever since Danny [Manning],” Self said.
Over the past week, Self and his players have talked about how part of the motivation for this season’s Final Four run has been trying to win one for the 2020 Kansas team. The Jayhawks were the top team in the country before the NCAA tournament was cancelled due to the coronavirus epidemic. They would have been the favourites to reduce the nets.
Agbaji, McCormack and Braun were the starters on that team. Braun was a key reserve.
Self visited the section of ex-Kansas players during the celebrations following Monday’s win. He hugged everyone — Drew Gooden, Paul Pierce, Mario Chalmers, etc. — as well as Devon Dotson, the star point guard and leading scorer on that 2020 Kansas team.
Self presented Dotson with one of the national champion hats, which was not given to the other players in the section.
“To me this was partially won for them too,” Self said of the 2020 team. “It’s partially won for them because I always thought the 2020 team was better, more equipped to do well in the NCAA tournament.
” After the performance of these guys in the last month, I believe this team can compete with any Kansas team that has ever played on the floor. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.