NEW ORLEANS — Kansas, ranked No. 1 in the country and entering in mid-March, had its national championship hopes dashed two years ago by an unbeatable enemy — the pandemic, which wiped out the NCAA championship.
The Perpetual Snake Jayhawks, who have a long history of NCAA Championship disappointments, put those regrets and others behind them on Monday night, rallying from a 16-point lag — the biggest comeback in a championship game — to turn back in North Carolina, 72-69, before 69,423 fans on Superdome.
David McCormack, their big rookie center whose career reflected the ups and downs arc of the Jayhawks’ championship fortunes, scored the green-light bucket by following his stride and then – after Armando Bacot, playing on his gimpy right ankle, hit him on the way to the basket – McCormack scored again on the post to push KS progressed to 3 points.
Kansas then had to survive with a pair of 3-pointers by Caleb Love and Puff Johnson – and after a turn he gave North Carolina one last, and another by Love, the bowler who saved them so much in this tournament, which didn’t come close.
When the bell rang, the Jayhawks stormed the court, and McCormack rushed to scream at the Kansas radio station as scraps of paper began falling from the roof.
The win was the Jayhawks’ first championship since 2008, when they raced past the Memphis in overtime – sent by late Mario Chalmers 3-pointers, a shot that lives on among the school’s rich basketball traditions. It also marks the fifth consecutive year that the top seed has won the title.
The match may have turned on the tender right ankle of the North Carolina center Paco, who had to walk off the field in the semi-final win over Duke and slipped the car into the basket Monday night with 50 seconds left and a writhing on the floor hurting. Bakut yanked himself and limped to the defensive end of the court until the play officials whistled dead so he could leave.
Without him in the game, Kansas, who was leading 70-69, would have gone straight to McCormack, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound center who worked his way past Brady Mannick to put Kansas ahead by 72-69.
Bill Self became the first Kansas coach to win more than one title—and distinguished himself among some of the game’s most famous leaders, from James Naismith—who is credited with inventing the game—to Fogg Allen, after whom Allen Fieldhouse is named, and Larry Brown, the only head coach. Who won the NCAA and NBA championships.
It is not certain if Kansas will be able to defend its crown. The NCAA’s icy judicial process may be on the brink of final verdict in a case stemming from a federal bribery scandal in which five Level 1 allegations were filed against Self.
Oklahoma State was banned from participating in last year’s championships, and Arizona, Louisville and Auburn imposed self-imposed bans in the aftermath of the same scandal. None of them have been accused of serious abuses like KS.
Those questions are for another day.
On Monday night, there was another sparkling finale of Final Four under the roof of the Superdome. This has often been a blessing for North Carolina, who won here in 1982 when Michael Jordan dumped a jacket from the wing, and in 1993, when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout he didn’t have to take a Tar Heels win.
Tar Heels looked well-ready for another celebration when he bounced back from an early deficit and threatened to knock Kansas off the field—a 38-22 lead and Bacot saddle the Jayhawks’ key players, McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot, with an ugly problem.
It’s fair to wonder if KS sticks pins in a voodoo doll the way its opponents fall. Creighton center Ryan Calkebrenner injured his knee late in his overtime win over San Diego and missed the Blues’ narrow loss to Kansas. Villanova’s guard Justin Moore ruptured his right Achilles tendon in the final seconds of the victory over Houston, possibly helping his defense against Agbagi, who hit his first six three-pointers against the Wildcats in the National Semifinals.
Then Bakut fell to the ground late in North Carolina’s win over the Duke on Saturday night and had to be helped off the bench. He returned with great caution, but announced on Sunday that he was ready. “My situation for tomorrow is ‘I’m playing,'” Bakout said. “My right leg must be cut off so that I don’t play.”
Bacot was spot tested by McCormack, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound Jayhawks bull from center. He made his way to the ledge for a basket and stopped Bakout’s first two shots, then lunged to the ground to pounce on a loose ball. McCormack seemed tired of punishing Paco, leveling Manek with a stray elbow – all before the match he was five minutes old.
But Paco fixed himself and went from toe to toe, chest to chest, and chin to chin with McCormack, using his sport to annoy the big Kansas man. Bakout finished 15 points and 15 rebounds, becoming the first player to score six doubles in the NCAA Championship.
About everything that went right in Kansas in the latter part of the opening half was banker Remy Martin on 3 Pointers – then shrugged off the CBS announcers as he stepped back in defense. KS walked into the locker room late, 40-25.
But the break gave the Jayhawks a chance to gather themselves and come back with renewed determination in defense. North Carolina missed 9 of 10 shots, and Leaky Black, the top defender in the Tar Heels, made two quick fouls, third and fourth, and went to the bench at 13:52 to play. A moment later, Daguan Harris stripped Davis and made a rebound pass on the break set by Brown, and Jayhawk trimmed their deficit to 1, at 46-45.
As Kansas rallied to lead 56-50, RJ Davis pinned the Tar Heels with a mid-range driving and crossing practice pose. He then drew the defense and landed a hit on Puff Johnson, who drew his triple pointer from the corner tied for Tar Heels, 57-57.
But Martin, the diminutive transfer from Arizona, sank a three-pointer from the corner to give Kansas a 63-60 lead — one of three he’s made in the second half.
Martin was the only addition to the Jayhawks’ tournament a year ago when the Jayhawks were run off the ground by Southern California in the second round of the tournament – one of six times in the last 12 tournaments when they failed to survive the first weekend of the tournament as the first four categorized.
Martin’s arrival raised an intriguing question: How might a fifth-year transfer from Arizona, who led a Pac 12 in scoring as a dominant ball-keeper, fit into an attack built on accurate combos and sharp cuts?
“Remy is probably different than anyone I’ve ever trained,” Self said.
And the self was no stranger to what Martin could do. Martin scored 21 points as a freshman in Arizona State’s win at Allen Fieldhouse – one of 10 home defeats in the last 15 seasons for Kansas City. He proved that he was more than just Providence the following season when his last minute jump helped knock Kansas out of their spot as the best team in the country.
A knee injury and hiccup adapting to the Jayhawks’ offensive structure and defensive demands made it an uneven season for Martin. But he has found his place as a game-changing sixth man and activator of crime as Vinnie Johnson, aptly nicknamed The Microwave. Martin scored 20 points in the win over Creighton and 23 in the win over Providence when the Jayhawks needed his attack to survive.
“We didn’t have anyone who could do a bad attack and take a basketball away, and he’s one of those guys,” Self said.
KS needed all the 14 points it got from Martin off the bench, but there was no shortage of contributors. McCormack had 15 points and 10 rebounds, Jalen Wilson was an unknown contributor with 15 rebounds, and Agbaji – named Player of the Tournament – contributed 12 points, along with Christian Brown.
It was enough, barely, to fend off North Carolina, which sent out wave after wave of rebounds – capturing 24 of its missed shots, including dunking Brady Mannick with 1:41 remaining to put North Carolina ahead, 69-68.
But tar heels – like Baku’s ankle – can no longer hold.
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