Kansas shows resilience, stages historic comeback for ages

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USATSI

Bill Self stared at the ball in the hands of North Carolina guard Caleb Love, then he looked up as the ball soared in the air. It came up short, drifted wide of the net and bounced out along the baseline. The Kansas bench had emptied and spilled onto the floor in celebration. The people on their feet, screaming “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk,” celebrating through tears enjoyed every moment on a historic night.

On this giant of nights, Self scaled the steps of a ladder and snipped the remaining piece of the championship net. He met his center David McCormack on the court and embraced him for several long moments, then whispered in his ear. With his hat perched atop his head and decked out in his brand-new championship T-Shirt, Ochai Agbaji left the scene of his greatest triumph before a single teammate or coach could grab him, and beelined for the stands to share the moment with his mother.

Amid a flurry of confetti that dispensed from the rafters of the Superdome in New Orleans at the end, that fell onto the court as North Carolina fell to Kansas, those tough-minded, hard-nosed kids leapt onto the elevated floor where they danced and chanted. For days, we’ve heard people debate — whether Kansas was the most balanced team of the four teams remaining — that they got a favorable draw. The Jayhawks showed the country why they’re the No. 1 team in college basketball.

As Kansas players trudged off the Superdome court, stepping gingerly out of view and into the locker room at halftime Monday night, down by 15, they felt no rush of panic. That’s because the Jayhawks, sprinting back onto the floor for the second half, somehow channeled missing energy, found new fuel, discovered their formula and stormed back, punctuated by a 12-1 run out of halftime.

This turnaround stretch incredibly brought a sigh of relief to Self, who breathed some fire into his players during the break. The Jayhawks found themselves at just the right time, feeding off newfound confidence and swag. One shining moment became one historic moment, the greatest comeback in the history of the men’s NCAA title game savoring greatly a wild but memorable ending to an exhilarating run.

It’s not just the win. It’s the history attached to Kansas’ comeback victory for the ages that we can tell our kids about one day. It lulled you into expecting them to pull off an improbable second-half run and then take competition to the next level. The Jayhawks almost couldn’t have scripted this any better if they tried.

This was the team that could win it all. That was the talk coming into this classic matchup as there was a lot of hype surrounding the game. And, surely, Kansas claimed its fourth national championship with a group of players who raised their level of play on the biggest stage. Much of what went into the turnaround was easy to see. It came down to Kansas’ players making shots and a strong commitment to defense. And by all accounts, Self’s message at halftime was received well. He lit a fire under his players and made fantastic adjustments.

In one of the most thrilling comebacks for the ages, Kansas defeated North Carolina, 72–69, to win the 2022 national championship. The 16-point deficit was the largest ever overcome in national championship history, surpassing 15 points set by Loyola-Chicago against Cincinnati in 1963. That spoke to the fighting spirit in the Jayhawks. They used a 20-6 run in the second half to erase North Carolina’s advantage before pulling away. It was how you’d script it out in an inspiring sports film or a dramatic Disney movie. It’s the most singular team accomplishment in school history.

The storyline in the first half was missed layups, terrible rebounding, a lack of energy, poor execution and awful defense. Way too many Kansas’ players were missing in action to start the night. But there was more than enough time to turn it around, to get back in the game and make things interesting. And we saw with our own eyes that the Jayhawks never stopped working, never stopped competing and never gave up the fight against a very good North Carolina team.

That relentless Kansas defense tightened up, put constant pressure on the player with the ball and created turnovers. They played ferocious defense and went stop-for-stop with the Tar Heels, holding North Carolina to 28 percent from the field in the second half. And as Kansas sustained a heightened defensive effort, the offense kept plugging along. The timely shots began to fall. This was the current Kansas program proving its resilience once again, exhibiting its grit-and-grind style of play. The energy, the physicality and defensive tenacity the Jayhawks brought in the second half gave the team a jolt.

The main story will be how the Jayhawks scored 14 points off turnovers in the final 20 minutes as North Carolina was outscored 47-29 in a wild second half. It was everything Kansas has been and why it stormed back in monstrous fashion, with most of the team’s points coming inside the paint. It’s part of their identity. It’s how they play and how they win ballgames. And that’s how the Tar Heels pretty much collapsed and lost a nice, comfortable lead in the championship game.

Final minute of a national title game, on the road or in a neutral site, crowd going wild, momentum on their side, shots falling in the basket, McCormack scored on a second-chance floater in the lane to put the Jayhawks up, 70-69. It came on the last meaningful possession of Kansas’ amazing season. Then there was a streaky shooter named Christian Braun, an immensely talented guard who could soon be on somebody’s NBA roster. He has proven himself to be the kind of player who can get his shots, scoring 10 of his 12 in the second half.

The Jayhawks had another dazzling young stud in Remy Martin. The Arizona State transfer hit some big shots. Also, no surprise, despite a poor first half, Jalen Wilson hit some big shots, too. When they did go on the attack, they cut through traffic with immense power, drove strong to the basket, finished around the rim in a variety of ways.

The team fell down but got back up. And closing games, fortunately, was a simple task. During closing time, Kansas got a bucket to put the game away. There were too many weapons on the floor for Kansas. Also Self is a premier coach, one of the best to have ever done it. And he did for Kansas what he was set to do, guide and preserve the rich history of an elite basketball program. For sure he was excited when it was all over.

In producing one of the most unforgivable seasons in school history, the Jayhawks have seen yet another extraordinary chapter in a long running story of success.

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