NEW ORLEANS — Trailing by 15 at halftime, Kansas stormed back to escape North Carolina 72-69 in a thrilling game of momentum swings to win the national championship game Monday before 69,423 at the Superdome.
The Jayhawks won their fourth national championship and second under coach Bill Self.
The comeback was one of the biggest ever in a national title game. The Jayhawks came out as a completely different team in the second half, amping up their defensive pressure and perfecting their high-octane offensive tempo to take control of the game’s momentum.
“I don’t know that I ever had a team flip the script like we have,” Self said. “To win when your team had to fight and come back the way they did and show that much grit makes this one off the charts.”
If the Tar Heels (29-10) attempted a knockout blow with their first-half offensive clinic, Kansas (34-6) had a counter-punch all second half in a down-to-the-wire finish. The Jayhawks used a 31-10 rally and took a 56-50 lead midway through the second half off three consecutive huge plays — an Ochai Agbaji three-point play, a Remy Martin three-pointer and then a Jalen Wilson and-1.
But North Carolina wasn’t about to go out quietly, setting up a thrilling finish. Two Brady Manek free throws with 3:06 left knotted the game at 65, and a tip-in by Manek with 1:41 remaining gave UNC a 69-68 lead.
KU big man David McCormack (15 points) was the hero down the stretch. His put-back with 1:21 left gave KU a 70-69 lead with a little over a minute remaining, and his bucket with 22 seconds left gave the Jayhawks the lead for good. A seemingly costly turnover with four seconds left by Kansas’ Dajuan Harris gave the Tar Heels the ball back with a chance to tie, but UNC’s Caleb Love couldn’t convert with an airballed three-pointer.
“It hurts for us to get this far and come up short, like everything we went through,” said Love, the star of the Duke semifinal win when he had 28 points. He only managed 13 points on 1-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc vs. Kansas.
Kansas got production from its supporting cast in this game, with Wilson leading the Jayhawks in scoring with 15 points and Martin (14 points) coming off the bench with a number of clutch jumpers, including four three-pointers. Agbaji (12 points) was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, while McCormack had 15 points and 10 rebounds.
This isn’t the first time Kansas completely morphed in the second half this tournament, having trailed Miami (Fla.) by six in the first half of the Elite Eight and then coming back to drub the Hurricanes by 26.
It’s been a long road for Self to get Kansas back to cutting the nets in April, winning the national title for the first time since 2008 despite winning 16 Big 12 regular season titles and regularly garnering No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds. Some of Kansas’ best teams of all time under Self have failed to win titles, including a 2020 team that was favored to win it all before COVID canceled the season. Prior to the championship game, Self acknowledged high expectations because of the Jayhawks’ storied program and die-hard fanbase.
“We’ve had some really terrific seasons and some great teams that came up short,” he said. “And I do think that when you have as many good teams as we’ve had – at most places winning one national championship would be quite an accomplishment. I think as many good teams as we’ve had, one’s not enough.”
North Carolina’s two best players, Armando Bacot (15 points, 15 rebound and Love, were hampered by ankle injuries to where UNC was not at its best, especially down the stretch. For the Tar Heels, the loss ends an unlikely finish considering the No 8-seeded Tar Heels started March as a bubble team uncertain of making the NCAA Tournament before finishing as a national runner-up here in April.
“This won’t be the last time ya’ll will see this program here,” Bacot said.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.