By David Song | @DeltaSigma96
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO – The Jayhawks are riding a Kansas gale all the way to New Orleans.
No. 1 seed Kansas channeled the intensity of its old fight song in Sunday’s Elite 8 matchup to vanquish No. 10 seed Miami, 76-50. By winning their 13th NCAA Midwest Region title, the Jayhawks qualify for the 16th Final Four in school history. Their record improved to 24-0 when holding foes under 70 points this season.
The Jayhawks (32-6) have a Final Four date on Saturday with the No. 2 seed Villanova Wildcats. Villanova defeated Houston, 50-44, in their earlier regional final, but lost junior guard Justin Moore to a torn right Achilles tendon. The Wildcats will miss Moore’s leadership as one of their captains, as well as the 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds he’s averaged this season.
Kansas and Villanova will meet for the fourth time in March Madness history. The Wildcats prevailed in the 2018 Final Four and 2016 Elite 8, while the Jayhawks won in the 2008 Sweet 16.
The 26-point margin represents the most lopsided NCAA Tournament defeat Miami has experienced. The Hurricanes (26-11) trailed for 22:14 in their first regional final after spending a total of only 16 seconds behind in their last two March Madness outings.
“A tale of two halves, obviously,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self, who improves to 4-5 in Elite 8 games. “For whatever reason, the lid came off in the second half and the intensity picked up defensively, and then we had about two good plays turn into four, turn into eight, which turned into 16. And these guys earned it.”
The Hurricanes actually led 35-29 at halftime, which was their largest advantage of the contest. Redshirt senior Kameron McGusty scored 14 of his 18 points in the opening stanza, being named to the NCAA Midwest All-Region Team as Miami held the Jayhawks to their third-lowest offensive output of any first half this season.
Yet once Kansas got rolling downhill, the Jayhawks could not be denied. Self’s unit beat the nation’s top transition attack at its own game, finishing with a 17-10 advantage in fastbreak points. The Jayhawks also overwhelmed the Hurricanes’ small-ball system with a 42-20 edge in paint points and a 17-0 margin in second-chance points. Consensus first-team All-American Ochai Agbaji broke out with 18 points and five rebounds on 8-of-12 shooting, while senior David McCormack terrorized the paint with 15 points, going 6-of-7. McCormack was named to the All-Region Team with fellow Jayhawks Christian Braun (12 points, six boards, four assists) and Remy Martin (nine points, six rebounds). They were joined by McGusty and Al Durham of Providence.
It was McCormack’s interior game that galvanized Kansas. The 6-foot-10 forward had eight second-half points, his offensive rebound putback at the 14:21 mark drew a foul, and his made free throw capped an 18-5 Jayhawk run coming out of halftime. Miami went from up six points to down eight, and anxiety appeared to set in.
The Hurricanes began forcing tough long shots, hitting only three of their 21 total attempts from beyond the arc. Miami misses often triggered Kansas’ fastbreak, and the Jayhawks went on subsequent runs of 16-2 and 10-0.
“I use the expression, ‘Don’t play the score, play the game,’ but we started playing the score,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga reflected. “We looked up at the scoreboard and we had fallen behind already. And what ends up happening then is: instead of settling down and executing better, we started to rush it even more.”
McGusty and sophomore Isaiah Wong (15 points) were the only Miami players to finish in double-figures. Senior point guard Charlie Moore had five points and two assists, well below his campaign averages of 12.6 points and 4.7 helpers. Redshirt junior Sam Waardenburg notched five points and two boards, fouling out at the 8:11 mark, while junior Jordan Miller fouled out at 2:40 after just two points on 1-of-3 shooting.
Larranaga thought Waardenburg’s early exit was particularly devastating, as the Hurricanes were just minus-3 during his 27 minutes and 38 seconds on the floor. After his departure, Kansas closed the game making seven of their last nine field goals, while Miami finished making one of their final 11.
Hurricanes players were visibly and understandably crestfallen in the postgame press conference, but amid the heartbreak, McGusty was able to appreciate what he and his teammates accomplished.
“I told all the younger guys in the locker room I loved them, and I told them to take care of [Miami] for the next three years,” he said. “New teams two, three years down the line, the Elite 8 is going to be the goal [for them]. Being able to bring together a group of guys, a community, coaching staff, it’s just amazing what we did.”
Four years after the Jayhawks lost to Villanova in a national semifinal, there’s no doubt Kansas players and coaches look forward to evening the score. “[This moment] hasn’t really set in yet,” Agbaji said. “I’m just proud of my team and proud of Coach Self. It’s great for the program and the university. But we’re not done yet.”