Kansas, the underrated, undervalued team that’s been teetering on the edge of the tournament since before it even began, is now one of the last two left.
Tyshawn Taylor made two big free throws late, and All-American Thomas Robinson finished with 19 points and eight rebounds Saturday night to lift the Jayhawks to a come-from-behind 64-62 win over Ohio State in the Final Four – a game Kansas led for a grand total of 3 minutes, 48 seconds.
After scoring the game’s first bucket, Kansas didn’t lead again until Travis Releford made two free throws with 2:48 left. That lasted for 11 seconds, but the Jayhawks (32-6), who trailed by as many as 13, overcame another deficit and finally held on against the Buckeyes (31-8).
”It’s just been our thing all year, coming back,” Robinson said. ”I don’t like doing it, but for some reason my team is pretty good when we’re down.”
More than pretty good. Kansas is one more magic act from bringing its second title in five years back to Allen Fieldhouse. It might take exactly that. The opponent is Kentucky, the big-time favorite to win it all, and a 69-61 winner over Louisville in the evening’s first semifinal. The Wildcats are an early 6.5-point favorite.
”It’s a dream to play the best team in the country, up `til now, hands down, the most consistent,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. ”It’s a thrill. And I think it’s even more of a thrill for us, because I don’t think anybody thought we could get here.”
Taylor’s two free throws with 8.3 seconds left gave Kansas a 64-61 lead, matching its biggest of the game. The Jayhawks intentionally fouled Aaron Craft with 2.9 seconds left. Craft made the first, then quickly clanked the second one off the front of the rim but was called for a lane violation.
Kansas dribbled out the clock and celebrated a win that played out sort of the way the whole season has in Lawrence.
With most of the experienced players from last year gone, Self at times wondered if this team was even tournament material. The Jayhawks still won the Big 12 title – for the eighth straight time – but came into the tournament as what some felt was an underrated No. 2 seed.
They played down to their billing in their second game, against Purdue, barely escaping with a 63-60 win that looked a lot like this game in the Superdome.
”It was two different games,” Self said of the latest escape act. ”They dominated us the first half. We were playing in quicksand it looked like. And the light came on. We were able to play through our bigs; we were able to get out and run, but the biggest thing is we got stops.”
Kansas’ next test will feature a coaching rematch between Self and John Calipari, who was with Memphis in 2008 when the Tigers missed four free throws down the stretch and blew a nine-point lead in an overtime loss to Mario Chalmers and the Jayhawks.
A big comeback. Sound familiar? This year’s Jayhawks also overcame a 19-point deficit to win their final regular-season meeting against Missouri – their long-time, SEC-bound archrival.
”It’s a 40-minute game,” Self said. ”There’s no 13-point plays. You have to grind it and get one stop at a time.”
This was a heartbreaker for the Buckeyes, who came in as co-Big Ten champions and a slight favorite in a game – a rematch of a 78-67 Kansas win back in December when Ohio State’s All-American, Jared Sullinger, was not available.
Sullinger was there a-plenty Saturday night, but he struggled. He finished with 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting, no fewer than three of them blocked by Jeff Withey, the Kansas center who finished with seven swats. Sullinger also had 11 rebounds and 3 blocks, but the sophomore who gave up NBA lottery money to return and win a championship will go without for at least another year.
When the buzzer sounded, he plopped at midcourt, clearly pooped – and maybe wondering how his team let this game slip away.
”These guys got tears in their eyes, blank stares on their faces,” Sullinger said. ”It’s tough on me.”
Ohio State-Kansas was billed as ”The Other Game” of this Final Four – garnering much less ink than the Kentucky-Louisville blood feud that preceded it – and started off looking like every bit the undercard.
The Buckeyes built an early 13-point lead on the strength of the shooting of William Buford, who came out of a 13-for-44 tournament slump to lead the Buckeyes with 19 points on 6 for 10 from the floor. Kansas trailed 34-25 at the half and only a steal and layup before the buzzer prevented the Jayhawks from a season-low.
Things changed when Ohio State came out and promptly missed its first 10 shots from the field, while Deshaun Thomas – the Ohio State big man in charge of shutting down Robinson – headed to the bench with his third foul.
That opened things up for KU: A couple easy layups for Robinson and a kick-out to Elijah Johnson for a 3-pointer were part of a 13-4 run to open the half. It tied the game at 38 and set up for a nip-and-tuck finish between these No. 2 seeds, each of which were in the hunt for top seeding all the way up to Selection Sunday.
Releford finished with 15 points and six rebounds for the Jayhawks. Johnson had 13 points and 10 boards. Taylor finished with 10 points and nine assists – not bad considering the time Craft spent glued to him much of the night.
Craft said he thought a quick brick and a rebound on the final free throw was his best chance to save the game. There wasn’t much of an argument after he got called for the lane violation, however.
”There is no explanation,” Craft said. ”Apparently I crossed before it hit the rim. I just knew I had to miss it. I thought that would be the best way for us to get the ball back.”
That end-game was set up when Releford made two free throws with 1:37 left to put KU ahead 60-59. Buford tried to take the ball to the basket on the next possession, but Withey swatted it away. Johnson followed with a layup – hardly as dramatic as his game-winner against Purdue, but enough for a three-point lead, which seemed like a million for the Jayhawks in this one.
Not that the Jayhawks need a big lead – or any lead.
”I think we’re trying to make it fun for y’all,” Robinson said. ”Seriously, I wish it would stop. I mean, I’d feel better at the end.”