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.
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
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
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
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
Sophomore guard Wayne Ellington led UNC with 18 points. Jackson scored
added 12 for Kansas, followed by Mario Chalmers and Collins with 11
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
“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
KU will be playing for the biggest stakes of all against Memphis.
“Now, we got an opportunity to make history at
Kansas,” Jackson said.