NEW ORLEANS. As the Kansas players sullenly trudged off the Superdome at halftime on Monday night, 15 points behind, mired in messy problems and dazed by a blue hurricane in North Carolina, David McCormack everyone smiled.
The hulking Jayhawks senior center looked around the locker room, clapped his hands, patted his teammates on the back and told them they’d been there before, making up the deficit throughout the season, including in the NCAA Tournament.
However, there were more than a few sidelong glances that greeted him.
“I was like, man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before,” teammate Christian Braun said with a laugh. “Losing 15 in a national championship game? I’ve definitely never been there before.”
By the end of the evening, the Jayhawks were in a different place they hadn’t been for quite some time, standing on the center court podium with blue confetti at their feet after they became national champions.
The rich lore of Kansas basketball, where the last two champions are bathed in divine light—Danny Manning and the Miracles, and the miraculous 3-pointer Mario Chalmers—has company in perfect faith after the Jayhawks staged the biggest comeback in NCAA championship game history. beat North Carolina 72–69 in front of 69,423 fans.
The Jayhawks, once trailing by 16 points, were hitting one late shot after another from North Carolina, leaving everything on the court, including the contents of Puff Johnson’s stomach.
Kansas eventually had to endure a flurry of last-second three-point attempts, the last of which shortly before a signal from Caleb Love, who saved North Carolina twice in the tournament, after which the Jayhawks ran onto the court to celebrate. McCormack, Brown and others yell at their fans.
It was easy to understand the excitement.
Snake-biting Jayhawks, who have a long history of NCAA disappointments – including two years ago when they were #1 in the rankings. 1 in the country before the pandemic wiped out the tournament – put those regrets behind you. In a way, it was fitting that they were led by McCormack, whose career reflected their uneven tournament participation.
The victory marked the Jayhawks’ first championship since 2008, when they swept Memphis in overtime, sent there by Chalmers with a 3-pointer.
“It would be special to win no matter what,” coach Bill Self said, adding that he was depressed and exhausted. “But winning when your team had to fight and come back like they did and show that much guts makes it off the charts.”
“I thought it would be good,” he continued. “And it’s a hell of a lot better than I thought.”
Self became the first Kansas coach to win more than one title, distinguishing himself among the game’s most famous leaders, from James Naismith, who is credited with inventing the game, to Fogh Allen, after whom Allen Fieldhouse is named, and Larry. Brown, the only coach to win NCAA and NBA championships.
It’s less clear if Kansas can defend its crown. An ice-cold NCAA lawsuit may be close to reaching a final verdict in a federal bribery scandal that resulted in five Level 1 charges against the Self program.
Oklahoma State was eliminated from the tournament this year, and Arizona, Louisville and Auburn themselves imposed bans as a result of the same scandal. None of them were charged with such serious violations as in Kansas.
These questions, however, are for another day.
On Monday night, another brilliant finale of the Final Four took place under the roof of the Superdome – and for the first time in three years, the celebration was accompanied by a bustling stadium full of fans. Often this setting was a blessing for North Carolina, who won here in 1982 when Michael Jordan drowned a wing jumper, and again in 1993 when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a time-out, he didn’t need to seal the Tar Heels’ victory.
resin heels, who survived the epic battle with Duke on Saturday, after sending their rival’s coach Mike Krzyszewski into retirement, they seemed set for another holiday as they bounced back from an early deficit and threatened to kick Kansas off the court.
Sophomore point guard R. J. Davis broke the Kansas defense, center Armando Backot gave McCormack and his stand-in Mitch Lightfoot foul trouble, and the Tar Heels took a 40-25 lead at halftime.
It’s fair to wonder if Kansas stuck pins into a voodoo doll in the same way his opponents did. Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner injured his knee late in overtime in a victory over San Diego State and missed the Bluejays’ narrow loss to Kansas. Villanova defenseman Justin Moore tore his right Achilles tendon in the closing seconds of the win over Houston, and his defense could help against Ohay Agbaji, who hit his first six 3s against the Wildcats in their national semi-finals.
Backot then fell to the floor late at night in North Carolina’s win over Duke on Saturday and had to be helped up to the bench. He returned somewhat cautiously, but on Sunday he said he was ready. “My status for tomorrow is ‘I’m playing,'” Becott said, adding, “I’m going to have to cut off my right leg to keep me from playing.”
Backot played heroically – not quite himself, limping from time to time, but nevertheless going toe to nose and chest to chest with McCormack, the two heavyweights pummeled each other from the initial tip.
Later, after Kansas took the lead, North Carolina also struggled with attrition. Brady Manek was knocked down by an early elbow to the head, Love twisted his ankle, and Johnson, standing up to take charge, soon fell to his knees and vomited on the court.
However, North Carolina was ready to survive it all.
Davis brought the Tar Heels back from a 6-point deficit and tied even at 57 when he filed for Johnson, who hit a three-pointer from around the corner in front of his bench. And Manek gave North Carolina a 69–68 lead again when he potted Lava into the basket with 1:41 left.
McCormack responded when he collected his rebound and laid the ball. Then it was Bekot’s turn. He scored 15 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, becoming the first player to record six double-doubles in a single tournament, and used his athleticism to hinder McCormack. After he kicked McCormack near the top of the key, Backot rode to his right, speeding down the alley. But as he approached the basket, Bacott’s tender right ankle buckled. He landed on the floor with a thud, writhing in pain after flipping the ball with 50 seconds left.
Backot got up and hobbled to the defensive end of the court until the officials stopped the game with a whistle so he could leave.
“I thought I really got the right angle,” Bakot said. “I thought it would be an easy throw. And then I just sprained my ankle when I was getting up.”
Without Backot in the game, Kansas, leading 70–69, went straight for McCormack, who pounded Manek to give the Jayhawks a 72–69 lead with 22 seconds left. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
North Carolina pushed the ball into the top zone and Love missed a three-pointer, but Davis caught the rebound and filed for Johnson, who missed another three. Manek made another rebound – 24th offensively for North Carolina – but threw the ball out of bounds.
Even with that loss, the Tar Heels got a reprieve when Dajuan Harris caught an incoming pass and went out of Kansas field. North Carolina set up a game for Manek, but he tripped and didn’t open up. Instead, the ball went to Love, who saved the Tar Heels from UCLA with a pair of late 3s and made another that sank Duke on Saturday night.
But this one, exhausted and exhausted, did not reach the goal.
A moment later, the Jayhawks were off the bench, this time all with smiles.