NEW ORLEANS — The post-game jubilation, as players rushed to the middle of the court and pointed to the crowd, had seemed nearly impossible minutes before the end of the first half. The once blank and dejected looks on the faces of Kansas fans were wiped away by a second-half performance that left Ohio State stunned.
The Jayhawks couldn’t find the words to explain how they overcame a 13-point deficit to beat the Buckeyes 64-62 and advance to Monday night’s NCAA championship game. Then again, Kansas still can’t explain how this team — one players openly admit isn’t the most talented group they’ve been a part of — continues to succeed by using its motto of “playing with house money.”
“I told them at halftime, ‘C’mon, boys, we’re a little bit better than this,’ ” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Basically I think it’s okay being on a stage like this and not playing well if you give yourself the best chance. You play to who you are. That was not who we are at all in the first half.”
Nine turnovers, shooting 11 of 30 from the floor and trailing by 13 points with less than 4 ½ minutes left in the first half was certainly not what Self envisioned. As the Buckeyes ran up and down the floor controlling the tempo of the game, the Jayhawks felt the pressure of playing in front of 73, 361 people suddenly fade.
The offense wasn’t there when they needed it to be as balls hit off the front of the rim and errant passes went out of bounds. But their defense kept the Jayhawks in the game.
“I think us getting down offensively helps us because we cherish the ball more,” said Tyshawn Taylor who struggled, shooting 2 of 7 and turning the ball over three times in the first half. “We want to make the right plays and do everything to just get the best shots possible.”
The Jayhawks’ defense started the second half rally as they created turnovers and Jeff Withey made his presence felt around the basket. The 7-foot junior recorded seven blocks during the game, three of which came within a 35-second span in the opening minutes of the second half.
The confidence from the defense carried over to the offense where Thomas Robinson, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford went to work. Robinson and Ohio State sophomore Jared Sullinger went back and forth down low where elbows were thrown and Robinson became frustrated.
The forward stomped a foot after turning the ball over during one possession and landed on the floor minutes later after Sullinger forced him out of the lane. Robinson scored eight points within a span of 10:37 to finish with 19 points and eight rebounds. With Deshaun Thomas sitting after he picked up his fourth foul, with 11:30 to play and the Buckeye lead down to three points, Kansas made its move.
“We’ve been in those situations before throughout the season, where we played from behind, played grind-it-out games,” Releford said. “We still got another goal. We can’t be too excited about this win.”
Factor in Ohio State’s 24.2 percent shooting percentage in the second half and Kansas had all the momentum it needed. Releford made four consecutive free throws within a span of 1:11, the last of which gave the Jayhawks a 60-59 lead with 1:37 to go, a lead that would never be lost.
Somehow, some way college basketball’s two winningest programs will meet for a championship on the line.
“I think it’s even more of a thrill for us right now because I don’t think anybody probably thought that we could get here,” Self said. “We still hadn’t played terrific yet in the tournament, but somehow these guys find ways to win.”