By Owen Kaelble | @OwenKaelble
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS — With the first half coming to a close and the Kansas Jayhawks trailing North Carolina by 15 points, with the chance of winning a national championship slipping way, senior David McCormack was smiling. “He was looking at me,” teammate Christian Braun said, “and I was like, ‘Why are you smiling, Dude? We’re down 15.’ He was telling me, like, ‘Keep your head up. Keep going, and we’ll be all right.’”
McCormack’s confidence soon became part of Kansas championship legend, alongside Mario Chalmers’ bolt-of-lightning shot in 2008, Danny Manning’s relentlessness in 1988 and Clyde Lovellette’s brilliance in 1952. McCormack’s two decisive baskets, a flip off an offensive rebound with 1:21 to play and a jumper with 22.5 seconds to go, completed the biggest comeback in championship game history and gave Kansas a 72-69 victory and its fourth NCAA tournament title.
The Jayhawks (34-6) trailed by as many as 16 points, one more than Loyola Chicago in its 60-58 overtime victory over Cincinnati for the 1963 championship.
“I think we’re probably all a little overwhelmed and spent,” said head Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self. “And I don’t know that I’ve ever had a team flip the script like we have probably in the NCAA tournament, whether it be Miami in the Elite Eight or whether it be this game. But 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. I thought this would be good. And this is a heck of a lot better than I thought it would be.”
North Carolina (29-10) could have made Hubert Davis the first first-year coach to lead a team to a national championship, a possibility that felt real when the Tar Heels led 38-22 with 2:23 to go in the first half. North Carolina had won 29 consecutive games after taking a halftime lead, including 21 this season.
But the Tar Heels, who were playing for a seventh title, lost control of the game when Kansas created a 31-10 surge in the first 9:52 of the second half. Although the Tar Heels outrebounded Kansas, 55-35, they unraveled in the second half when the Jayhawks made 57.6% of their shots and scored 14 points off of Tar Heel turnovers.
North Carolina junior Armando Bacot, playing despite suffering an injury to his right ankle in the semifinal victory over Duke, scored 15 points with 15 rebounds to become the first player in NCAA tournament history to record six double-doubles. He averaged 15.3 points and 16.5 rebounds in the six games.
Five Jayhawks scored in double figures. Sophomore forward Jalen Wilson scored 15 points on 5-of-13 shooting. Senior guard Remy Martin scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half. Senior guard Ochai Agbaji, who was voted the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, scored 12 points. Braun scored 12 points with 12 rebounds.
Agbaji was joined on the all-tournament team by McCormack, Bacot, Caleb Love of North Carolina and Paolo Banchero of Duke.
With three minutes and six seconds left, the score was tied at 65. On the following possession, Martin drained a stepback 3-pointer to give the Jayhawks a 68-65 lead with 2:40 to play. The Tar Heels followed with consecutive second-chance layups by Love and graduate student Brady Manek to regain a 69-68 lead with 1:41 to play. But McCormack answered with a championship-winning sequence, his crucial offensive rebound and a second-chance layup of his own to put the Jayhawks back on top.
What followed next, with 50 seconds to play, helped decide a championship. Trailing by a point after Love’s shot was blocked by Martin, Bacot reinjured his ankle, committed a turnover, and hopped toward the defensive end of the floor until play was stopped with 38.5 seconds to go. “I thought I made a good move,” he said. “I thought I really got the angle I wanted. I thought it would have been an easy basket. And then I just rolled my ankle as I was going up.”
Bacot hobbled his way down the court on one leg, trying to get back on defense, until an official blew the play dead with 38.5 seconds to play after seeing he was unable to continue. He was helped off the floor by assistant coach Sean May, a hero of Carolina’s 2005 championship victory.
McCormack then swished a jumper with 22.5 seconds left, giving Kansas a 72-69 lead the Jayhawks would not relinquish, despite a turnover with 4.6 seconds left. Love gave a contested heave at the buzzer that missed everything and the confetti began to fall.
“Coach Davis and coach (Brad) Frederick drew up a play for either Brady or me to get the ball, whoever was open – whoever got open,” said Love. “And so it was kind of a screen to get me open and it was supposed to be a screen for me to get a flare. Got the ball and I took the shot and came up short.”
Davis expressed the pride he had in his players.
“I’m so proud of these guys for what they have done for themselves individually, as a team, the way that they have represented our university, this program, our community,” said Davis. “I can’t ask for them to do any more than what they have done. And I am extremely proud of each one of them.”
Each team held the lead for 18:32. Kansas raced out to a 7-0 lead in the first 90 seconds. But for the rest of the half, it was all North Carolina, as the Tar Heels went on an 18-3 run to end the opening stanza. It was 20 minutes dominated by second-chance points, with 18 of North Carolina’s 40 points coming via second-chance opportunities. UNC also got to the free-throw line in the first half, converting 13 of their 16 free throws.
The tide quickly turned in the second half as Kansas suddenly found success in the paint, scoring 16 points around the basket in the first eight minutes. After scoring only 12 points in the paint in the first half, the Jayhawks scored 26 of them in the final 20 minutes.
“Coach had a great message for us, and he challenged us to be better and to have more pride,” said senior Mitch Lightfoot. “And we did that.”
Self now has two championships to his name as the head coach of the Jayhawks, a 46-16 record in the tournament with Kansas and has a 3-0 record against the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament with Kansas as well.
For Self, this victory comes with the happiness and reflection of knowing what his late father would think of this championship.
“So many parents that are my age grew up with families that lived through the depression and the Dust Bowl and everything else,” said Self. “And so he always felt that nothing was ever given, everything had to be earned. And, so, I think he would be very proud of this team because he knows, without question, they earned what happened tonight.”