Buckeyes lost, but Kansas knows the way
This was about winning, and knowing how to do it. Kansas knew how. Ohio State knew how to fall apart. It was that simple.
Kansas has been doing this all year, winning these tight games, coming from way back without a bench and without the usual roster full of Kansas stars. How? Winning isn't just talent, but also habit, belief, togetherness, understanding, faith.
As for Ohio State, rarely has a team looked that confused, baffled, discombobulated in the final minute of a Final Four game.
So Kansas did it again, beating Ohio State, 64-62, to advance to the national championship game Monday night against Kentucky. Ohio State goes home wondering what on earth just happened, while the Jayhawks go out celebrating in a town that is acting like Spring Break for adults.
"I told them Bourbon Street was in the locker room tonight," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "That's as close as they're going to get. We won't get back to the hotel until after midnight, and guys will go straight to their room.
"We won't even let them go to the lobby. Unless they’ve got some sheets they can tie together and drop them from the 14th floor, they're not going to go anywhere tonight."
Kansas has won three of its four tournament games by three points or fewer. It was down big to Purdue, probably should have lost to North Carolina, was down by 13 on Saturday.
It was a perfect balancing act, as one team was actively winning while the other was actively losing. It’s not just a outcome, but an action, too.
In the final minute, Ohio State had two turnovers, and so many mistakes. The game actually ended with Kansas inbounding the ball with three seconds left, and Ohio State not knowing what was going on, not aware enough to commit a foul to stop the clock.
"You know, I’m not exactly sure," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
"It went quick. We weren’t set to where we needed to be. You know, they quick-inbounded on us, and we didn’t have it."
Quick-inbounded? Ohio State guard Aaron Craft made a free throw to cut Kansas’ lead to two. Then, he had to miss the second one on purpose.
But he shot toward the front rim and started running down the lane at the same time. He crossed the plane of the free-throw line before the ball had hit the rim, and was called for a lane violation.
While he argued about it, and his teammates watched on, Kansas inbounded the ball, and time ran out.
The truth is, though, most of the Kansas team started playing well in the final 10 minutes. The players all slipped into their roles. They are just that well-coached.
Forward Thomas Robinson, the team star, was jittery and panicky most of the first half. In the end, he was everywhere, finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds.
Guard Tyshawn Taylor took over with assists, rebounds, steals. (With five seconds left, though, he could have dribbled out the clock, but got too fancy, and threw the ball away).
But standing out most was Kansas’ skinny, 7-foot center, Jeff Withey.
You become a success when you find what your strengths are. Withey’s is that he is, well, tall. He blocked seven shots and shut down Ohio State star Jared Sullinger.
"I think my length bothered him," Withey said. "It made him go out and try to shoot threes."
This was Sullinger’s defining moment. He passed up big NBA money to come back to college this year. And it wasn't a great year for him. His NBA stock fell. But Sullinger said he didn't care about that; he was here because he wanted to win.
In other words, this was the moment he came back for. And instead of taking over, he was shut down by a 7-footer who went on the eat-everything diet and got into serious weight-lifting just to get up to 225 pounds. Withey intimidated Sullinger, even blocked three of his shots in a row.
"Big fella here," Self said, sitting next to Withey, "I thought played as good a low-post defense on a great player as he could. Not only got seven blocks, but he altered or adjusted four or five at least. That was a huge key for us."
Withey now will have to go against the best player in the country, Kentucky's Anthony Davis, in the championship game. And Kansas has to go against the best roster in the country. Kentucky beat the Jayhawks, 75-65, in its second game of the season.
This one is going to be a trick for Self, who once was known as a great recruiter who couldn’t coach. The Self image changed when he won the national championship four years ago over Memphis – led by current Kentucky coach John Calipari.
But with this team, Self is looking like the best coach in the country.
It isn't all just slick salesmanship, getting on ESPN and recruiting.
Self has taught his players how to be winners.