Kansas overcomes worst tournament half to beat North Carolina
For the first 22 minutes, the Jayhawks didn't make a jump shot.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Of all the halftime paint peelers, Bill Self’s had to be one of the more cerebral ones.
Top-seeded Kansas had not made a jump shot in the opening 20 minutes against North Carolina. Not one. At all. Tried a few, got some putbacks and a couple of jams but that was it. Kansas' coach didn't know it at the time but his team was in the process of posting the worst shooting percentage in a half (25 percent) in its tournament history.
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The message was clear with a South Regional Sweet 16 berth at stake: Shoot the damn ball. Make some damn shots. Maybe the language was a bit more colorful.
Self hasn't won 300 games at Kansas and 507 overall because he overthinks.
“I told them to keep doing what they were doing and we'd be fine,” Kansas’ coach said, failing to disguise a smirk.
OK, on the real.
“I wasn’t happy with them,” Self added. “It’s OK not to play your best. At least don’t play your best if you’re not yourself. We were sped up and nervous and timid. They beat us to loose balls. Our basketball IQ the first half was not very high.”
Kansas is in that Sweet 16 -- beating eighth-seeded North Carolina 70-58 Sunday -- largely because you can’t figure them out. The Jayhawks’ best player (Ben McLemore) is 2 for 14 from the field in two tournament games. The starting point guard, Elijah Johnson, is 2 for 12. The Jayhawks have an astounding 39 turnovers in those four halves.
It took the Jayhawks 22 minutes, into the second half, to finally hit that first jump shot -- Kansas' first 3 of the tournament by Travis Releford. Good halftime strategy. It took off from there, making the second half a pep rally for the 18,000 jammed into the Sprint Center. A 35-12 run erupted.
After its worst tournament half ever, KU posted one of its best, finishing with a 49-28 kick. It was a matter of energy. Kansas had more.
If they ever get this basketball thing down, the Jayhawks could be dangerous.
Just don’t try to figure Kansas out. It has something to do with the leadership of four seniors. It has something to do with one of those seniors (Jeff Withey) being 7-feet tall and, on Sunday, grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds. It had something to do with an overwhelming homecourt advantage that was earned.
The Jayhawks played and won their eighth game of the season at Sprint, 45 miles from their campus. That’s 22 percent of the schedule coming at what has become Allen Fieldhouse East. Thanks to that advantage, Kansas is the first team in Division I history to win at least 31 games four years in a row.
“We benefited from being in Kansas City,” Self said, “no doubt about that.”
It has something to do with four seniors not wanting to go out yet. Withey, Releford, Johnson and forward Kevin Young got to the national championship game last year. On Sunday, they showed they wanted to get there again, making a combined 20 of 37 shots.
The next test is Michigan in that Sweet 16 game in Arlington, Texas. By that time, Self will have to find out why McLemore (0 for 9 on Sunday) hasn’t emerged in what most likely will be his only NCAA tournament. Or that those turnovers just keep coming.
“I think with Ben, it’s just through repetition,” Self said. “He just needs to see the ball go through the hole this week in practice.”
The simple beauty of making that first shot. Self had to be aware of it at halftime: In trailing 30-21, his team had made only seven field goals. That made it quite a lethargic NCAA tournament overall for the top-seeded Jayhawks who struggled with Western Kentucky in the first round.
But by now, Roy Williams knows the feeling. For third time since he left Kansas 10 years ago, North Carolina’s coach felt the wrath of a Jayhawk Nation scorned. For the third time, Williams and his Heels were routed all the way back to Tobacco Road. In three post-Roy meetings, Kansas has won by a combined 43 points.
“It is not any more painful [losing to Kansas],” said Williams, whose smaller lineup could only take him so far. “We lost to another basketball team. ... I hurt for myself. I hurt for the kids in the locker room. The NCAA tournament, the suddenness, the swiftness with which your season is over with is dramatic. It hurts everywhere.”
The numbers are fairly even. The teams have played basketball for a combined 218 seasons,(Kansas with 115), populated the bracket for 86 years (Carolina with 44 of those), and met only 11 times (Carolina with six victories). The Tar Heels have won five national championships, Kansas three.
There isn't much different difference between these two college basketball battleships. Sunday, though, will go down as a simple matter of motivation. Kansas had more of it in the second half.
Well, that and the nation’s best shot blocker (Withey). And the rest of those seniors not ready to walk away just yet. Releford developed as a defensive stopper. On Sunday, he was an offensive savior (22 points) hitting that first 3 after KU had gone without one for the first time in 201 games against Western Kentucky.
The smaller Tar Heels couldn’t adjust. Mostly, they couldn’t hit shots in the second half. Withey, that shot blocker, was imperfect with six turnovers but made up with it with a double-double. His five blocks gave him 43 in his NCAA tournament career, No. 2 all time in the postseason behind some guy named Tim Duncan.
“It’s an great honor obviously to be behind someone like Tim Duncan,” Withey said. “It’s an honor but hopefully I can pass him.”
He’s got at least one more game to do it.
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