NEW ORLEANS – As the Kansas players sadly left the Superdome floor at halftime Monday night, down 15 points, mired in rough trouble and stunned by a powder blue North Carolina hurricane, David McCormack was all smiles.
The Jayhawks’ hulking senior center looked around the locker room, clapped, patted his teammates on the back and told them they’ve been there before, rallying on deficits throughout the season, including in the NCAA Tournament .
Still, there were more than a few sideways glances that greeted him.
“I was like, man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here forward,” said teammate Christian Braun with a laugh. “Down 15 in the national championship game? I have certainly never been there before.
By the end of the night, the Jayhawks were somewhere else they hadn’t been in some time – standing on a podium in center court, blue confetti at their feet, having been crowned national champions.
The rich tradition of Kansas basketball, where the last two champions are bathed in divine light – Danny Manning and the Miracles, and the 3-point miracle of Mario Chalmers – has company in a blooming faith after the Jayhawks have staged the biggest comeback in NCAA championship game history to beat North Carolina, 72-69, in front of 69,423 fans.
The Jayhawks, who once trailed by 16 points, fended off one late shot after another from North Carolina, which left everything — including the contents of Puff Johnson’s stomach — on the field.
Kansas eventually had to survive a hail of last-second 3-point attempts, the last just before the buzzer from Caleb Love, who had saved North Carolina twice in the tournament, after which the Jayhawks ran on the pitch to celebrate with McCormack, Braun and others yelling at their fans.
It was easy to understand the elation.
The perpetually snake-bitten Jayhawks, who have a long history of disappointments in the NCAA — including two years ago when they were ranked No. 1 in the nation before the pandemic wiped out the tournament — put these regrets behind them. It was fitting, in a sense, that they were led by McCormack, whose career arc reflected their uneven tournament fortunes.
The victory was the first championship for the Jayhawks since 2008, when they passed Memphis in overtime – sent there by Chalmers’ 3-pointer beating the buzzer.
“Winning would be special regardless,” said coach Bill Self, who added that he was overwhelmed and exhausted. “But winning when your team had to fight and coming back the way they did and showing a lot of grit makes this one a winner.”
“I thought it would be good,” he continued. “And it’s much better than I thought.”
NCAA Men’s Basketball: Final Four
Self became the first Kansas coach to win more than one title, standing out among some of the game’s most renowned leaders, from James Naismith – who is credited with inventing the game – to Phog Allen, whose ‘Allen Fieldhouse is named after, and Larry Brown, who is the only coach to win the NCAA and NBA championships.
Whether Kansas will be able to defend its crown is less certain. The icy NCAA court process may be nearing a final verdict in a case stemming from a federal corruption scandal, from which five Level 1 allegations have been brought against Self’s program.
Oklahoma State was kicked out of this year’s tournament, and Arizona, Louisville and Auburn imposed self-imposed bans following the same scandal. None of them have been charged with offenses as serious as those in Kansas.
Those questions, however, are for another day.
On Monday night there was another scintillating end to a Final Four under the roof of the Superdome – and for the first time in three years the festivities were backed by a noisy stadium packed with fans. Often that frame has been a blessing for North Carolina, which won here in 1982 when Michael Jordan sank a wing jumper, and again in 1993 when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout, he didn’t have to seal a Tar Heels win.
The Tar Heels, who survived an epic battle with Duke on Saturday sending rival coach Mike Krzyzewski to retirement, looked set for another celebration when they bounced back from an early deficit and threatened to chase Kansas from the field.
Sophomore point guard RJ Davis was breaking through the Kansas defense, center Armando Bacot had faulted McCormack and backup Mitch Lightfoot, and the Tar Heels had taken a 40-25 halftime lead.
It’s fair to wonder if Kansas stuck any pins in a voodoo doll the way its opponents let it down. Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner injured his knee late in an overtime win over San Diego State and missed the Bluejays narrow loss to Kansas. Villanova guard Justin Moore tore his right Achilles tendon in the closing seconds of a win over Houston, and his defense could have helped against Ochai Agbaji, who hit his first six 3-pointers against the Wildcats in their national semi-final.
Then Bacot fell to the ground late in North Carolina’s win over Duke on Saturday night and had to be helped off the bench. He came back a bit cautiously, but Sunday declared himself ready. “My status for tomorrow is ‘I’m playing,'” Bacot said, adding, “My right leg should be cut so I don’t play.”
Bacot played heroically – not quite himself, limping occasionally, but nonetheless going along with McCormack, two heavyweights hitting each other from the opening tip.
On the home stretch, after Kansas took the lead, North Carolina also struggled with attrition. Brady Manek was floored with an early elbow to the head, Love had rolled his ankle and Johnson – after standing up to take a charge – fell to his knees shortly afterwards and vomited on the pitch .
North Carolina, however, was about to survive it all.
Davis had woken the Tar Heels from a 6-point deficit to draw even at 57 when he beat Johnson, who hit a 3-pointer in the corner in front of his own bench. And Manek put North Carolina back in front, 69-68, when he tipped Love’s drive to the basket with 1:41 left.
McCormack responded when he collected his own rebound and laid the ball down. It would then be Bacot’s turn. He had scored 15 points and 15 rebounds – becoming the first player to have six double-doubles in a single tournament – and used his athleticism to thwart McCormack. After luring McCormack near the top of the key, Bacot drove to his right, crossing the lane. But as he approached the basket, Bacot’s tender right ankle gave way. He landed with a thud on the ground, writhing in pain after turning the ball over with 50 seconds left.
Bacot got to his feet and hobbled to the defensive end of the field until the officials called the dead play so he could leave.
“I thought I really had the angle I wanted,” Bacot said. “I thought it would have been an easy basket. And then I just wrapped my ankle as I rode.
Without Bacot in the game, Kansas, with a 70-69 lead, went straight to McCormack, who fought his way past Manek to put the Jayhawks ahead, 72-69, with 22 seconds left. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
North Carolina pushed the ball up and Love missed a 3-pointer, but Davis grabbed the rebound and gave Johnson, who missed another trey. Manek grabbed another rebound – the 24th offensively for North Carolina – but threw the ball out of bounds.
Even with that turnover, the Tar Heels got a reprieve when Dajuan Harris caught the inbound pass and went just out of bounds for Kansas. North Carolina set up a game for Manek, but he stumbled and wasn’t open. Instead, the ball went to Love, who saved the Tar Heels against UCLA with a pair of late 3-pointers and made another that sank Duke on Saturday night.
But this one, harassed and tormented, did not succeed.
A moment later, the Jayhawks came off the bench – this time, all smiles.
April 5, 2022
An earlier version of this article omitted the first names of Kansas coach Bill Self and Kansas player Ochai Agbaji.