ST. LOUIS —It was as if somebody had reached over and put dadgum gum in UNC coach Roy Williams’ hair.
Sometimes in Bracketville, it comes down to a tweak. At the 11:52 mark of the second half of the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Regional final, North Carolina hit the under-12-minute media timeout with 61 points. Over the previous eight minutes, they’d scored 14 points. In the eight minutes before that, they’d scored 16. The Tar Heels were in their comfort zone, setting the tempo, on pace for a game in the 80s, dragging Kansas — a team almost as swift as Carolina but not nearly as deep — into a track meet.
That is, until Bill Self reached into his bag of tricks. He dumped the straight-up man-to-man look, and pulled out a junk defense, one the Jayhawks hadn’t used since they’d escaped Purdue in Omaha: The triangle-and-2. In layman’s terms, it meant two guys playing man-to-man and the other three in a zone.
“And they just didn’t know what to do with it,” Kansas guard Conner Teahan said after the Jayhawks stunned the top-seeded Heels, 80-67, advancing to the program’s first Final Four since 2008. “And we were a little more focused.”
Focused? Brother, Kansas defenders could smell fresh blood in the water. Carolina’s players, who’d been running up and down most of the evening, looked positively flabbergasted.
Even open shots were released hesitantly. And whenever the Heels would find a gap in the zone, they’d also find Jayhawks center Jeff Withey — who netted 15 points and outplayed Carolina’s more-celebrated big man, Tyler Zeller — waiting for them, arms at the ready.
When assistant coach Joe Dooley pointed out that the switch in defenses had limited the Heels to just five points over their last 12 possessions, Tyshawn Taylor’s eyes lit up.
“So we were like, ‘All right, we got to turn it up now,'” Taylor recalled.
Between the under-12 media timeout and the under-four media timeout, the Heels scored just five points. Over the final 3:58 of the ball game, they managed only one more. Kansas closed the game on a 12-0 run.
“We panicked a little bit out there,” Williams admitted later. “And I think that’s when Withey blocked one shot in the middle, and then may have blocked Stilman (White)’s shot as well.”
The triangle-and-2 isn’t flawless — it’s especially vulnerable to cutters through the lane. But White, for all his moxie, doesn’t have the jets of Kendall Marshall, the man he’d replaced. And shooting guard Reggie Bullock, who’d bailed out Carolina on Friday against Ohio, was held scoreless in the second half, missing all three of his attempts from beyond the arc.
The Heels’ starting wing players, Bullock and small forward Harrison Barnes, were a combined 7-for-20 from the floor, 1-for-10 from beyond the arc, with five turnovers. Ballgame.
“They got some open looks — fortunately, they didn’t knock them down,” Self said. “And sometimes when you get an open look, you don’t knock it down, you think a little bit, and that’s kind of what it does. But we were able to keep the ball out of their bigs’ hands and take away their two shooters. And the thing about it is, you’ve got to rebound out of it. And you know, they’re a great rebounding team, but I thought we rebounded the ball as well as we have in a long time tonight.”
By the time the nets were down and the dust had settled Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome, there were too many stars and not enough game balls to go around. But it started with Self and his staff — they coached circles around Williams, Self’s predecessor in Lawrence. The former is now 3-1 against the latter, and 2-0 in head-to-head meetings between the Jayhawks and Heels.
“I think that’s probably pretty big for Kansas fans,” Teahan said. “But you know what? It means a lot. Winning games like this means a lot, period, to Kansas fans. And coach Self has been able to prove that he’s a great coach.”
Even the big man’s gambles paid off. When Withey picked up his fourth foul with 3:58 left in the contest, a lot of coaches might’ve pulled him for a few minutes, just to be safe. Self kept him in, and he responded with two huge blocks in the final two minutes.
“If we had a four-point lead, I may have taken him out for a possession or two,” Self said. “But in a tight game like that, I was going to let it ride.”
Sometimes, it’s just your night. Hell, sometimes, it’s just your tournament.