By DAVE SKRETTA – AP Basketball Author
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In a national championship game that no one in Kansas will soon forget, Bill Self went from Hall of Fame coach who failed far too often on the big stage to the brilliant mastermind of the greatest comeback in the history of the NCAA Title Games.
Most of the first 20 minutes Monday night was blitzed by North Carolina, and after digging a seemingly insurmountable 40-25 deficit, the senior-heavy Jayhawks rallied to another for a 72-69 win over the Tar Heels in the boisterous Superdome long to win. awaiting banners on the rafters of the historic Allen Fieldhouse.
“I think if you’re the most successful program of all time — just by a small margin — and if the inventor of the game was your first coach, and people like Adolph Rupp are from Kansas and Dean Smith is from Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain is from Kansas, who Expectations are where being good is OK, but it’s not enough,” said Self.
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“Nobody has ever put pressure on me that we have to win another one,” he added, “but I think I put pressure on myself because I know that place deserves more than what we won .”
The Jayhawks, trailing the Tar Heels by 16 in the first half late Monday night, eclipsed Chicago’s Loyola with 15 points in the comeback and beat Cincinnati in 1963 in overtime for the biggest title win in title game history. They also set a record by overcoming the largest halftime deficit in a Final Four game.
“With a group of guys who are so experienced and who know and know each other so well, it’s hard to see us being upset. And I think we recovered at halftime,” said Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot. “The coach had a great message for us and he urged us to do better and have more pride. And that’s what we did.”
David McCormack finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds and dueled the battered Carolina Big Man Armando Bacot all night in the paint. Remy Martin had 11 of his 14 points after the break while Jalen Wilson had 15 – including a couple of big baskets early in the second half when the Jayhawks managed to turn a blowout into a ball game.
“Coach, he obviously challenged us and he was excited,” said the Jayhawks’ Ochai Agbaji, “but it was about us playing our game and executing in the second half and taking away from them in the first half what they were trying to get.”
It’s the fourth title for the Jayhawks and the second for Self, who claimed his first when another bunch of comeback kids rallied to beat Memphis in overtime in 2008. And this one came on the same Superdome floor where Kentucky denied it in the finals for a decade before, one of the many heartbreaks Self and his team have experienced over the years.
There was the 2010 team that spent much of the season at No. 1 but lost in the second round of the tournament, and the following year the Jayhawks didn’t lose until late January but were knocked into the Elite Eight by VCU.
There was also the 2013 overtime loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16 and back-to-back years in which Kansas failed to make it past the tournament’s opening weekend. More recently, there was Villanova’s 2018 Final Four blowout — which Kansas avenged on Saturday night — and second-round eliminations in each of the previous two NCAA tournaments.
The Tar Heels were ready to add to the heartache on Monday night.
They dominated the offensive glass in the first half and made second-chance baskets almost at will while Kansas endured long periods of offensive incompetence. Martin was 1 of 5 from the field, his only make was a jangling 3 from backboard, and Wilson and Christian Braun were a combined 2 for 13 from floor.
At halftime, Self referenced the Jayhawks’ comeback with his team at the 2008 national championship and asked if they’d rather fall behind by nine with two minutes left – like that night – or by 15 with 20 minutes to play.
It took me about 10 minutes to learn her answer.
The trio of Braun, McCormack and Wilson went to work to start the second half, erasing North Carolina’s hard-earned lead and eventually even drawing when Agbaji – the Final Four’s MVP – held a three-point game with 10 :53 transformed.
It was a back and forth until McCormack collected his own rebound and hit with a 1:16 lead. Bacot turned the ball around at the other end when his sprained ankle from the semifinals against Duke finally gave out. Then McCormack added another basket with 22.3 seconds left to give the Jayhawks some breathing room.
“The game is on the line,” McCormack said. “The coach talks about holding the ball up and going straight back up. That went through my head. We work hard recordings every day. I work both hands, get a quick basket, go back on defense.
Caleb Love and Puff Johnson both missed 3-point attempts, then North Carolina got one last chance when Dajuan Harris turned the ball over with 4.3 seconds left. The Tar Heels got the ball back to Love, the hero of their dramatic win over the Blue Devils, but his shot went wide as the clock ran out and confetti fell from the sky.
The comeback broke the record for the largest overcoming halftime deficit in a championship game set by Kentucky in 1998 when they recovered from a 10 deficit to beat Utah. It also broke the record for every Final Four halftime comeback of 11 set by Duke’s Rally to Maryland in 2001 and Temple when it defeated Kansas State in the 1958 third-place game.
Perhaps more importantly, it eliminated any argument that Self will go down as one of the game’s greatest coaches.
“I didn’t think of that,” Self said, “but I feel like we’ve had so many good teams over time, we could have had more than one, although — like I said — I never felt any pressure from.” everyone that we had to do this, but I knew we could very easily have done more with what we had. So I really think it means a lot to me.”
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