When you overcome a 15-point halftime deficit against a team that is on one of the great rolls in tournament history, you are a worthy champion. Kansas was down 40-25 at the break, then started the second half on a remarkable 31-10 run to lead 56-50. Even then, the Tar Heels weren’t done, coming back to lead 69-68 with 1:41 to go before Kansas scored the game’s last four points.
The championship was Bill Self’s second, the first one coming 14 years ago in San Antonio. In that title game, the Jayhawks trailed Memphis by nine points with 2:12 left before rallying to tie the score on Mario Chambers’ buzzer-beating three-pointer and then winning in overtime.
Self reached back for that memory at halftime when talking to his players. “I asked them, ‘Which do you think is tougher, being down nine with two minutes to go or being down 15 with 20 minutes to go?’” he said. “They all said it was being down nine with two minutes to go.”
But now, the end finally appears in sight, and it could impact the national champions. Kansas is accused of five major violations of NCAA rules. The penalties could range from a wrist-slap suspension for Self to a suspension of the program from next season’s tournament.
The last NCAA champion not allowed to go for two in a row? Kansas, in 1989. Those Jayhawks were banned from postseason play for violations committed under Larry Brown, who coached his team to the national title in 1988 and then left for the NBA. Roy Williams was left to deal with the sanctions in his first season.
The only team to get stripped of its championship is Rick Pitino’s 2013 Louisville squad. The banner Kansas earned Monday night won’t come down: The alleged violations took place before any of this past season’s players were involved in the program.
There was certainly no talk of any of that Monday night. For a couple of hours, the Tar Heels and Jayhawks made everyone remember that, as Tony LaRussa once said of baseball, “the game is better than all of us.”
Apparently, Coach Hubert Davis and his players didn’t quite see it that way. They knew if they wanted to end this season with ultimate joy, they had to win one more.
The Tar Heels went on a 16-0 run late in the first half to lead 38-22, with Brady Manek, the 6-foot-9 sixth-year transfer from Oklahoma, keying the surge with a pair of threes from the left side . Armando Bacot, the 6-10 rebounding machine who turned an ankle late in the Duke game, was dominating inside. He finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds in 38 minutes.
At that stage, Kansas was the team that looked out of gas. Center David McCormick was in foul trouble, and outside shots weren’t finding their mark. This was not a pretty game. The winning team shot 29 of 66 from the field and was overbounded, 55-35. But the losers were 23 of 73 from the field, including a horrific 5 of 23 on three-point attempts. Carolina’s guards, so crucial in the five victories that got them to Monday night, couldn’t find the range one last time.
“They really attacked us, offensively and defensively in the second half,” Davis said. “The made sure nothing was easy for us.”
In truth, nothing was easy for either team. After its 16-0 surge, Carolina was outscored 34-12 bridging the two halves. From there, the teams seesawed to the finish.
It is worth noting that, after a crushing home loss to Duke on Feb. 5, the Tar Heels were 16-7, and fans on social media boards were calling for Davis to lose his job. From there, North Carolina won 13 of its next 15 games, including two massive victories over Duke, and Davis fell one win short of becoming the second coach in history to win the title in his first season. Michigan’s Steve Fisher took over for Bill Frieder at the start of the 1989 tournament and won six straight games and a championship. Even after Monday’s loss, there will be no calls for Davis’s ouster from Tar Heel faithful.
Kansas also stumbled during the winter, most notably in an embarrassing 80-62 loss to Kentucky at home Jan. 29. The Jayhawks lost two games entering March before finishing the season with 11 straight victories. Before the finale, they’d won tough tournament games against Creighton and Providence and had rallied from a 35-29 deficit in the regional final against Miami, outscoring the Hurricanes by a stunning 47-15 margin in the second half to win, 76- 50.
Their burst against Carolina in the title game was, in its own way, more impressive because of the opponent, the stage and the stakes.
Kansas got the last two baskets of the season and earned the final and most important headlines of a tournament that was packed with thrills. Carolina put on an amazing show until the very end. Krzyzewski’s walk-off was bittersweet: a record-breaking 13th Final Four trip but a devastating loss to his team’s archrival just short of the finish line. The Big Ten once again spit the bit. Saint Peter’s gave all underdogs hope and literally danced their way into people’s hearts.
And, as always, the tournament helped us forget the sport’s problems. Now that the season’s over, we will be reminded of them again very soon.