By Zachary Powell | @ZMPowell30
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS – Remy Martin, Kansas Jayhawk and national champion, had some questions to ask. “What are they gonna say now?” the senior guard said late Monday night, the words tumbling out. “What else do they want from us?”
He was celebrating the Jayhawks’ fourth NCAA tournament championship. Kansas erased a 16-point deficit, the largest in championship game history, to capture the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Championship at Caesars Superdome.
The comeback surpassed the 15-point rally of the Loyola Chicago Ramblers in their 1963 overtime title game victory over Cincinnati. As the Jayhawks regrouped in their dressing room, trailing 40-25 with 20 minutes left in their season, a surge began to take shape in the minds of the Jayhawks with a question coach Bill Self asked near the end of halftime.
Self remembered: “I said, ‘Which would be harder? Being down nine with two minutes left or being down 15 with 20?’ And they all said being down nine with two minutes left.”
Self had just made a connection to another alarming moment on another championship night, when the Jayhawks trailed Memphis by that nine-point margin as time was running out. Jayhawk fans can recite what happened next: The game-tying 3-point shot by Mario Chalmers with 2.1 seconds to play that forced overtime, leading to a 75-68 victory and a first Kansas title in 20 years. Now, to another generation of Jayhawks in a difficult position, the comeback began to feel real.
“So we can do this,” Self remembered. “And because that’s the way it was in ’08.”
The Jayhawks responded right away out of halftime. The Jayhawks began the half with possession of the ball and right away got a dunk from their senior leader, forward David McCormack. From here, the Jayhawks knew they just had to keep chipping away at the Tar Heel lead. The Jayhawks knew in order to have a successful comeback, many players would have to play their roles. One player who played an integral role was junior Christian Braun.
Braun notched 12 points and 12 rebounds for the game but kept the Jayhawks in the game offensively in the second half. Braun scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. Additionally, sophomore Dejuan Harris, Jr. was able to pressure the Tar Heel guards in the backcourt and come up with some timely steals.
“It was Dajuan he sparked it in the second half,” senior Ochai Agbaji said of Harris. “Just his defensive pressure rubbed off on everyone else and that’s where we got that momentum from on the defensive end and everything else fell in place on the offense.”
North Carolina missed its first three shots of the half. Kansas scored three straight baskets, with Braun delivering the last two, to bring the Jayhawks within 40-31.
“And 15 went to nine like that,” Self remembered as he snapped his fingers.
But this was nine points with 17:40 to go, not two minutes. With Harris leading an intense defensive charge, all the momentum had shifted to Kansas’ side. The 0-for-3 North Carolina shooting became worse. The Tar Heels made just two of their first 14 second-half shots. A 16-5 Kansas run over the first 5:45 brought the Jayhawks within 45-41 as the noise swelled in the Superdome.
One of the factors things that had surrounded the Jayhawks lately, even with all their success, was the question of what would happen if the team became rattled. The Jayhawks were certainly tested against the stellar backcourt of North Carolina sophomores Caleb Love and RJ Davis with the impressive inside presence of junior Armando Bacot. What helped the Jayhawks stave off that pressure and help the team stick together in the moment of adversity was their experience. When things started to dwindle for the Tar Heels, when Agbaji, Braun, and Wilson trimmed the lead between the 13:11 mark and 10:08 mark, the Tar Heels never responded with a punch of their own. North Carolina never gained that offensive scoring power that it had in the first half, only posting 10 second-chance points in the second half. The Jayhawks did the opposite, gaining control with 26 points in the paint after halftime.
“With the group of guys as experienced as this and been around and know each other so well, it’s kind of hard to see us get rattled,” said Kansas senior forward Mitch Lightfoot. “Coach had a great message for us, and he challenged us to be better and to have more pride. And we did that.”
One other player who made key shots down the stretch for the Jayhawks was Martin. The graduate transfer made four crucial 3-pointers in the contest, three of which came in the second half, including a stepback, off-balance shot with 2:40 to go that gave the Jayhawks a 68-65 lead.
“In the second half, I just came in there, tried to make something happen and the shot the shots with confidence and just tried to make plays,” Martin explained. “I wanted to keep going and extend that lead. And I’m happy we did that.”
As the game came to a close, Tar Heels sophomore guard Puff Johnson made key plays down the stretch to keep his team in it. Johnson made key stops on Agbaji and hit timely 3-pointers when his team needed them, but it simply was not enough. Once Bacot reinjured his right ankle with 50 seconds to play, desperately hobbling toward the defensive end before play was stopped with 38 seconds to go, McCormick was able to gain leverage inside and score to put Kansas ahead, 72-69, with 22.5 to play.
Kansas was able to survive a potentially costly turnover when a replay review determined that Harris stepped out of bounds with 4.3 seconds left. Love had one more shot to tie the game and send it to overtime. But the shot missed the rim, wide right, making the Jayhawks champions for the first time since 2008 and second in the Self era, cementing their comeback for the ages.