Survive and advance.
That oft-used phrase rang true yet again Friday night as Kansas defeated North Carolina State despite hitting just two shots from outside five feet.
The Jayhawks earned their stripes on the defensive end and held the upset-minded Wolfpack to just 28.4 percent shooting in a hard-fought 60-57 victory.
All-American forward Thomas Robinson led the charge with 18 points and 15 rebounds, and Elijah Johnson chipped in with 11 points as the Jayhawks found just enough offense to move on to the Midwest Regional Final against top-seeded North Carolina.
The Wolfpack couldn’t seem to solve seven-foot Jeff Withey, who blocked a career-high 10 shots.
“It was definitely a tough game tonight and a physical one and we didn't shoot the ball really great and just to get the win feels really, really good,” Withey said. “It was all defensively and we're dancing. We're still in the tournament. So it feels good to be able to play against a historic program like North Carolina, and I think that we have a great chance to play our best game Sunday.“
Senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, who connected on just two of his 14 attempts, said Withey’s “mudding it up” allowed the Jayhawks to come away with the victory.
Robinson, arguably the nation’s top player, worked hard in the paint and willed his team down the stretch.
“We’re not the most talented team around,” Robinson said. “We’re not as deep as we were in previous years so we’re not going to win by scoring. We have to buck up on the defensive end and that’s what we have to live on.”
A jumper from Taylor with 3:46 remaining gave KU reason to believe that the Elite 8 was just around the corner, but NC State had other ideas.
A layup from C.J. Leslie cut the deficit to six, and Scott Wood canned three freebies after being fouled by Elijah Johnson with 1:56 to go. Taylor forced the issue a bit too much, and C.J. Williams dunked in transition to make the score 58-57.
With 13.5 seconds left, KU head coach Bill Self called a timeout to draw up a play. That play, however, was left on the dry-erase board as Taylor improvised and found an opening for an easy lay-in.
A desperation heave by big man Richard Howell didn’t have enough distance, allowing Kansas to escape with the victory.
Despite spotting itself a 13-3 deficit to begin the game, KU clamped down defensively and allowed just four points over the next 5:28 to knot the score up at 17. The Jayhawks used a couple quick buckets to gain some breathing room at 23-17, but the rest of the first half was a see-saw battle as 11-seed NC State took a 33-32 lead into the locker room.
“We still haven’t been playing good yet,” Robinson said. “Not to how we’re capable of playing. We play defense, but our offense has been really slow.”
KU will need to kick it into the next gear when Sunday rolls around as they’ll face a highly-potent offensive attack from the Tar Heels.
Left to dissect tonight’s game, Self summed it up in fine fashion.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game that I’ve ever seen on both sides because neither team made shots,” he said. “But [I am] really proud of our guys because the last two games that we played, they have had to figure out a way to win it when the ball wasn’t going in the hole, and hopefully that will be a positive moving forward.”
With the defense clicking, Sunday would be a nice time to take the lid off the basket and get both sides of the ball working in harmony.