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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Kansas, with the magic of a record comeback, snatches title over North Carolina

Kansas players celebrating their win after beating North Carolina, 72-69, in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament.

By Billy Witz

As Kansas players glumly trudged off the New Orleans Superdome floor at halftime on Monday night, down by 15 points, mired in foul trouble and dazed by a powder blue North Carolina hurricane, David McCormack was all smiles.

The Jayhawks’ hulking senior center looked around the locker room, clapped his hands, patted his teammates on the back and told them they had been there before, rallying from 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 before,” his teammate, Christian Braun, said with a laugh. “Down 15 in the national championship game? I’ve definitely never been there before.”

By the end of the night, the Jayhawks had been somewhere else they hadn’t been in quite some time — standing atop a podium at center court, blue confetti at their feet, after being crowned national champions.

The rich lore of Kansas basketball, where the last two champions are bathed in divine light — Danny Manning and the Miracles, and Mario Chalmers’ miracle 3-pointer — has company in fulfilled faith after the Jayhawks staged the largest comeback in NCAA championship game history to beat North Carolina, 72-69, before 69,423 fans.

The Jayhawks, who once trailed by 16 points, fought off one late blow after another from North Carolina, which left everything — including the contents of Puff Johnson’s stomach — on the court.

Kansas ultimately had to survive a hail of last-second 3-point attempts, the final one just before the buzzer by Caleb Love, who had rescued North Carolina on two occasions in the tournament, after which the Jayhawks raced onto the court to celebrate with McCormack, Braun and others screaming at their fans.

It was easy to understand the elation.

The perpetually snakebit Jayhawks, who have a lengthy history of NCAA disappointments — including two years ago when they were ranked No. 1 in the country before the pandemic wiped out the tournament — put those regrets behind them. It was fitting, in a sense, that they were led by McCormack, whose career arc has mirrored their uneven tournament fortunes.

The victory was the first championship for the Jayhawks since 2008, when they scrambled past Memphis in overtime — sent there by Chalmers’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

“It would be special to win, regardless,” said Self, who added that he was overwhelmed and spent. “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.”

Self became the first Kansas coach to win more than one title, distinguishing himself among some of the game’s most renowned leaders, from James Naismith — who is credited with inventing the game — to Phog Allen, whom the Allen Fieldhouse is named after, and Larry Brown, who is the only coach to win both NCAA and NBA championships.

Whether Kansas will be able to defend its crown is less certain. The NCAA’s glacial judicial process may be nearing a final verdict in a case stemming from a federal bribery scandal, from which five Level 1 allegations have been levied against Self’s program.

Those questions, though, are for another day.

On Monday night, there was another scintillating ending to a Final Four under the Superdome roof — and for the first time in three years the festivities were backed by a boisterous stadium full of fans. Often this setting has been a blessing for North Carolina, which won there in 1982 when Michael Jordan sank a jumper from the wing, and again in 1993, when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout he did not have to seal a Tar Heels victory.

The Tar Heels, who survived an epic battle with Duke on Saturday, sending their rival’s coach, Mike Krzyzewski, into retirement, seemed set up for another celebration when they bounced back from an early deficit and threatened to run Kansas off the court.

Sophomore point guard R.J. Davis was breaking down the Kansas defense, center Armando Bacot had put McCormack and his backup Mitch Lightfoot in foul trouble, and the Tar Heels had stormed to a 40-25 lead at halftime.

It is fair to wonder if Kansas has been sticking pins in a voodoo doll the way its opponents have been dropping. Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner injured a 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 final seconds of a win over Houston, and his defense might have helped against Agbaji, who hit his first six 3-pointers against the Wildcats in their national semifinal.

Then Bacot tumbled to the floor late in North Carolina’s win over Duke on Saturday night and had to be helped to the bench. He returned somewhat gingerly, but on Sunday proclaimed himself ready. “My status for tomorrow is ‘I’m playing,’” Bacot said, adding. “My right leg would have to be cut off for me not to play.”

Bacot played heroically — not quite himself, limping from time to time, but nevertheless going toe-to-toe and chest-to-chest with McCormack, two heavyweights banging each other from the opening tip.

Down the stretch, after Kansas had clawed into the lead, North Carolina was also fighting attrition. Brady Manek was floored by an early elbow to the head, Love had rolled his ankle and Johnson — after standing in to take a charge — fell to his knees a short while later and vomited on the court.

North Carolina, though, was poised to survive all that.

Davis had roused the Tar Heels back from a 6-point deficit to draw even at 57 when he dished to Johnson, who hit a 3-pointer out of the corner in front of his own bench. And Manek put North Carolina back in front, 69-68, when he tipped in Love’s drive to the basket with 1:41 left.

McCormack answered when he gathered his own rebound and laid the ball in. Then it would be Bacot’s turn. He’d scored 15 points and pulled down 15 rebounds — becoming the first player to have six double-doubles in a single tournament — and had used his athleticism to thwart McCormack. After he drew McCormack out near the top of the key, Bacot drove to his right, barreling through the lane. But as he neared the basket, Bacot’s tender right ankle gave way. He landed with a thud on the floor, writhing in pain after turning the ball over with 50 seconds left.

Bacot picked himself up and hobbled to the defensive end of the court until officials whistled the play dead so he could leave.

“I thought it would have been an easy basket,” Bacot said. “And then I just rolled my ankle as I was going up.”

Without Bacot in the game, Kansas, nursing a 70-69 lead, went right to McCormack, who muscled 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 upcourt and Love missed a 3-pointer, but Davis grabbed the rebound and dished to Johnson, who missed another trey. Manek grabbed another rebound — the 24th offensive one for North Carolina — but tossed the ball out of bounds.

Even with that turnover, the Tar Heels got a reprieve when Dajuan Harris caught the inbound pass and stepped just out of bounds for Kansas. North Carolina set up a play for Manek, but he tripped and wasn’t open. Instead the ball went to Love, who had rescued 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 harried, was short of the mark.

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