ST. LOUIS (AP) — Exhaustion seemed to wash over the face of North Carolina coach Roy Williams. His voice kept catching, his lips quivering so much that he often had to stop mid-sentence.
It’s hard to lose deep in the NCAA tournament.
Even harder to lose to Kansas.
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“There’s no way to put into words the way we feel. There’s no way to put into words the way I feel,” Williams said finally. “It’s the NCAA tournament. One team wins and one team loses.”
Playing without injured point guard Kendall Marshall for the second straight game, top-seeded North Carolina was unable to contain Tyshawn Taylor on Sunday. The senior piled up 22 points for Kansas in an 80-67 victory that sent the Jayhawks to the Final Four.
And the Tar Heels back to Tobacco Road.
“You hurt. You hurt for your team,” said Williams, who coached the Jayhawks to four Final Fours. “You hurt for these kids that for 34, 35 minutes were part of a fantastic basketball game.
“The last four or five minutes,” he said, “they played much, much better than we did.”
The second-seeded Jayhawks (31-6) can finally purge from their memory last season’s upset loss to VCU in the regional finals. They’ll play Ohio State on Saturday in their first trip to the Final Four since 2008, when they won the national championship.
Player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson added 18 points and nine rebounds against the Tar Heels, and Elijah Johnson kept up his blistering pace in the tournament with 10 points, his 3-pointer with 3:07 to play sparking Kansas’ 12-0 run to end the game.
“We knew what we had to do and we did it,” Taylor said in the locker room. “That’s what it came down to: We made the plays when we needed to.”
Jeff Withey made two monster blocks to deny the Tar Heels during the closing run. One of them he tipped ahead to Taylor, whose three-point play in transition made it 74-67 with 1:59 left.
The Jayhawks cruised from there.
“It was a game of runs,” Williams said. “And we didn’t answer the last one.”
James Michael McAdoo scored 15 for the Tar Heels (32-6), who lost for only the third time in 12 regional final appearances — but the second time in two years.
North Carolina went the final 5:46 without a field goal in the Midwest Regional final, sorely missing the play of Marshall, who Williams called “our engine, our driver, the head of the thing.”
He broke a bone in his right wrist last weekend against Creighton. After surgery to insert a screw on Monday, he had the cast removed Wednesday and finally practiced a bit on Saturday. But he woke up sore on Sunday and it became clear that he couldn’t play.
Marshall spent another maddening night sitting on the bench in a suit.
“It wasn’t a toughness factor,” he said. “It was the fact that I couldn’t catch a pass.”
This was only the second time Williams had faced Kansas since leaving the school where he spent his first 15 years as a head coach, taking the Jayhawks to the NCAA title game twice.
Though Kansas fans have softened some, Williams was still greeted with a chorus of boos — despite the fact that he remains so deeply committed to the Jayhawks that he refuses to play them out of conference. The games are simply too emotional.
At least this one went better than the first meeting, at the 2008 Final Four, where the Jayhawks walloped North Carolina on the way to winning the title Williams never could at Kansas.
Both teams made impressive recoveries from their ugly wins Friday night, starting on a crisp, torrid pace that had both shooting better than 56 percent at halftime.
“It was pretty there for a while,” Williams acknowledged.
Stilman White played well again while filling in for Marshall. The freshman may be a “wacko,” as Williams has said affectionately several times the last few days, but the kid knows how to run an offense. He had seven assists Sunday, giving him 13 for the two games without a single turnover.
The Jayhawks seemed on the verge of pulling away several times, only to have Carolina reel them back in. But just before the midway point of the second half, Kansas established some breathing room when Travis Releford scored on a jumper to start an 8-2 run.
Taylor capped the spurt with a swirl-in jumper and a dunk off a turnover by John Henson to give the Jayhawks a 66-61 lead.
“It was anyone’s game for the first 32 minutes or whatever,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “and then we got consecutive defensive stops, which we hadn’t been able to the first 30 minutes, and made a ton of plays — individual team plays down the stretch.”
Tyler Zeller pulled the Tar Heels within two on a putback, and Harrison Barnes made the first of two free throws to make it 68-67 with 3:58 to play. But Johnson, shooting almost 52 percent in the tournament, drained that 3 from NBA range to start the decisive run.
“It was a four-point game. It quickly became nine,” said Zeller, who had 12 points. “Once they started making free throws, it hit double digits and we knew time was running out.”
On the game and on their season.
White was nearly in tears in the North Carolina locker room while the Jayhawks cut down the nets. His eyes were still puffy at the postgame news conference, while Zeller tried to explain what went wrong down the stretch and Williams tried to keep his own emotions in check.
“At the end of the day, all I want to do is win and get to the Final Four in New Orleans,” White said. “We didn’t quite make it.”