Tar Heels Denied, Kansas Moves On

Bill Self and Russell Robinson (Steve Puppe photo)

SAN ANTONIO — Moments after the final buzzer sounded in KU's 84-66 victory over North Carolina in the Final Four, Darnell Jackson stood up from the bench and raised his index finger to the sky.

No. 1.

KU can indeed be number one if the ‘Hawks beat Memphis in the national championship game on Monday night. The Tigers beat UCLA, 78-63, in the other semifinal game here Saturday night in the Alamodome.

“That was our ultimate goal at the beginning of the season, was to be playing for a national title,” said freshman center Cole Aldrich. “We’re doing it. I don’t have any words to describe it because it’s an unbelievable feeling.”

All Kansas fans had an “unbelievable feeling” the way KU raced out of the gates in the first half. The underdog Jayhawks broke open a 15-10 game at the 13:35 mark with an 18-0 run. KU swarmed on defense, forced turnovers, and kicked its fast break into high gear.

The ‘Hawks (36-3) led 40-12 with 6:48 remaining in the half before UNC showed up, outscoring Kansas 15-4 to close the half and cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 17 (44-27).

With KU up 19 points (52-33) at the 17:36 mark of the second half, ‘Carolina again came charging back. The Tar Heels picked up their defensive intensity and got easy buckets off KU turnovers, cutting the lead to just four points (54-50) with 11:15 remaining.

Kansas felt North Carolina coming. The Jayhawks felt the Tar Heels pushing. KU felt its 17-point halftime lead slipping away.

But KU was too good, too proud, too hungry to just let its season die.

Kansas led just 64-59 with 5:41 remaining when sophomore Sherron Collins hit a huge three to up the lead to seven. With ‘Carolina trailing 67-61, KU went on a 13-0 run to put the tired Tar Heels away.

Junior Brandon Rush led the charge, scoring seven of his game-high 25 points in a 3:30 span to give KU a 19-point lead (80-61) with over a minute to play.

“He played great today,” said senior Darnell Jackson. “He was unbelievable.”

Self even put in seldom-used reserves Conner Teahan, Tyrel Reed, and Matt Kleinmann in the last minute. By that time, this game was in the books.

KU coach Bill Self was quite proud of his team’s effort, despite UNC’s rally late in the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second half.

“(We) were in the attack mode for 40 minutes,” Self said. “I thought we just did a really good job of being the aggressor early, which set the tone for the game. ... It was three different games. First game we were great, second game, we weren’t very good and they were great. The last game, obviously we played super down the stretch.”

KU shot 54.5 percent from the field in the first half, and limited the Tar Heels to just 29 percent shooting.  Kansas also controlled the boards, 23-15, and forced UNC into 10 turnovers.

“That’s probably the best we’ve played all year in the first half,” said sophomore forward Darrell Arthur.

“That’s about as good as I’ve seen from us,” Self added. “Best 15 (minutes of first half) I’ve ever had anybody play because you’re playing the No. 1 seed in the tournament on the biggest stage. ... To start the game, I felt like instead of having 10 hands out there, if felt like we had 14 or 16. Guys were all after every ball.”

With seniors Sasha Kaun and Jackson on the bench with two fouls, Aldrich came up huge in the first half, posting six points, six rebounds, and three blocks in 13 minutes. Aldrich also altered several other shots and once ripped a rebound away from player of the year Tyler Hansbrough. He finished with eight points, seven boards, and four blocks in 17 minutes.

“I thought Cole was the best player in the game for a stretch in the first half,” Self said. “He may have won the game for us as much as anybody because he bought us so many great minutes.”

He also played great defense on Hansbrough. who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. Self said it was a good collective effort with KU’s bigs on the Tar Heels’ star.

“I think he is so good at creating contact after he catches it by spinning and those sorts of things, but we didn’t let him, except for two or three times, split the trap,” Self said. “We made him score over us as opposed to giving him an angle. We thought that was a big key because he’s so good at drawing contact.”

Sophomore guard Wayne Ellington led UNC with 18 points. Jackson scored added 12 for Kansas, followed by Mario Chalmers and Collins with 11 points.  

Kansas held the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense to 23 points under their average. UNC also shot just 35.8 percent, compared to 53.1 percent for KU.

It seems the KU players were extra motivated by Self’s pregame speech.

“We did tell them the pressure was off (after making the Final Four after being in three Elite Eights the past five years),” Self said. “They just felt like the monkey was off their back. They played so free and easy.”

And now the Jayhawks head into Monday night with some great momentum from a stellar first half and a great close to the game.

“If we come out and play like we did the first half both halves, I don’t think anybody can stop us,” Arthur said.

KU will be playing for the biggest stakes of all against Memphis.

“Now, we got an opportunity to make history at Kansas,” Jackson said.

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