Everything was going against them and the prevailing feeling inside Kansas City's Sprint Center was one of nervousness and fear. Kansas fans sensed their Jayhawks' season could end at the hands of North Carolina and their former coach.
However, two seniors stepped up at the exact moment the Jayhawks were in need of a hero and through will, grit and determination, Kansas finds itself advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 30th time in its storied history and sixth time under coach Bill Self, as they rallied from an 11-point deficit to dispatch North Carolina 70-58 on Sunday afternoon.
The Jayhawks will face Michigan for the first ever time in postseason play, Friday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX.
“We played miserably in the first half. They took us out of everything. We were so rushed and sped up and played nervous. Then, second half, we came out and our guys competed. We were great on the glass. Of course, we had to have some individuals step up. Travis was terrific and Jeff was equally good,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
The game had a strange feel throughout the first half, as both teams shot poorly. Kansas shot just 7-28 for 25 percent, while North Carolina attempted a whopping 42 shot, but only made 11 of them. For the game, they would go on to make just 22 out of their 73 shots for 30 percent.
The Jayhawks put themselves in dangerous territory by committing 12 turnovers to just two for Carolina. They went to the locker room at halftime down 30-21, but the sense inside the arena was that they were down more and it could get worse. That was when fellow seniors Travis Releford and especially Jeff Withey stepped in and stepped up.
“Any given night it could be one of the four seniors, or it could be Ben (McLemore) or Naadir (Tharpe) that could step up and start talking and tonight was Jeff’s night,” senior forward Kevin Young said.
The two were determined to will their team to the Sweet 16 and from the beginning of their second half on, it was clear that they not only talked the talk, they walked the walk.
The game in essence was a microcosm of their season, in which each night, someone else has stepped up when needed. Withey poured in 16 points and brought down 16 rebounds to go with five blocks. Releford, playing in his hometown turned in perhaps his finest all around game as a Jayhawk, scoring 22 points and notching eight rebounds.
On this day, they just both decided that this journey would continue and that it may just be beginning, as it gears up for Arlington.
“It felt great. I did not want to end my career here at the Sprint Center, so I was playing every minute like it was my last” Releford said.
At one point the two had outscored the Tar Heels 11-3 in the second half. Withey took advantage of the smaller Carolina frontline, who was plagued with foul trouble, while Releford made shots in every way and out worked Carolina on both side of the ball. Meanwhile, guard Naadir Tharpe came off the bench to score 12 big points, while Young added 10 points and nine rebounds, along with endless hustle.
It was just clear that Kansas' season would not end, not on this day, not in this arena, because a group of seniors willed their journey to another week and now stand that much closer to their ultimate goal, all because they refused to lose.
“Me and all the seniors, just looked at each other and asked ‘Is this it? Are we done? Is this going to be the end of our season?” Withey said. “Everybody said no and that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. We all just knew that we didn’t want our season to end and we just played like we weren’t going to lose.”