ST. LOUIS — Thomas Robinson beckoned for more noise just as he applied scissors to the net. Giddy Kansas fans were happy to oblige.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Elijah Johnson ran through the tunnel punching clenched fists in the air.
Tyshawn Taylor shouted, “Gonna get me some gumbo!”
The sights and sounds that punctuated second-seeded Kansas’ 80-67 conquest of top-seeded North Carolina for the Midwest Regional championship on Sunday could not have been envisioned when the Jayhawks opened practice in October.
Not with one returning starter and an incoming class cut short because of ineligible players.
And not with a team that took earlier than expected pratfalls in each of its last two NCAA Tournaments.
But there they were Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome, cutting nets and ordering gumbo for their Final Four trip to New Orleans and a national semifinal against Ohio State at 7:49 p.m. Saturday.
“I think this would have been a year that if we got to the second weekend, most Kansas faithful would have been happy,” said Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who’s in the Final Four for the second time after winning the NCAA title in 2008. “But I don’t think those guys would have been satisfied.”
Those guys are the ones who locked the Tar Heels in a vice grip in the game’s second half and especially over the final six minutes.
At the most critical juncture of the season, when the game had been a battle of wills between North Carolina’s offensive mastery — operating at near full capacity even without injured point guard Kendall Marshall — and Kansas’ defensive toughness, the Jayhawks prevailed.
North Carolina forward John Henson stepped to the free-throw line when the teams returned from a timeout with 3:58 left and made one of two, trimming Kansas’ lead to 68-67.
To this point, after a frenzied first half that ended in a 47-47 deadlock, the Jayhawks had opened small leads only to have North Carolina offer an answer.
Now, with a one-point difference, the game was up for grabs.
And North Carolina wouldn’t score again.
The Jayhawks ended the game on a defense-fueled 12-0 streak. The team that survived earlier-round scares against No. 10 seed Purdue and No. 11 seed North Carolina State by putting faith in its defensive will turned to its power once again.
But first, Johnson loosened things up with a three-pointer, launched a couple of feet from the KU bench after the Tar Heels’ defense gave him a slight opening.
“I wouldn’t want to go home tonight saying I could have shot that three when the defense backed off,” Johnson said. “I made them pay.”
Just as he did with the monster triple that proved to be the game-winner against the Boilermakers and a layup that gave the Jayhawks breathing room against the Wolfpack.
Kansas seemed energized by the shot. Two possessions later, Jeff Withey blocked Henson’s shot and then alertly tipped the ball to Taylor, who raced to the hoop for a layup and was fouled by Stilman White.
“(Jeff) made eye contact with me after the block,” Taylor said, “and as soon as he landed back on the ground he tipped it to me as hard as he could.”
The three-point play opened a 73-67 lead. Withey, playing with four fouls, then blocked a short jumper by White. This time Releford got the transition dunk with 1:29 remaining and the Jayhawks began to feel it.
Over the final 20 minutes, North Carolina was outscored 33-20. It didn’t make a basket in the final 5:46, and most of this came against a triangle-and-two defense. KU had Taylor defend the point and Releford, Johnson and Conner Teahan — when he was in the game — formed the bottom of the triangle, intended to bother gifted North Carolina scores Henson and Harrison Barnes.
That’s precisely what happened. They couldn’t get shots much less score, as Kansas used the gimmick for much of the game’s final eight minutes.
“Once we understood they couldn’t score in it we just kept playing it,” Taylor said.
While Kansas players identified the triangle as a critical component for the outcome, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he wasn’t so sure.
“I know they did for one possession, and they may have for a second possession,” Williams said. “I’m not sure about that.”
Williams and the Tar Heels were more certain that Kansas was the aggressor. Even after a first half in which North Carolina shot 63.6 percent, its second best marksmanship for a half this season, there was no separation between the teams. Kansas also was enjoying its best shooting half of the tournament and teams went to the locker rooms tied at 47-47.
The Tar Heels were without Marshall, who about three hours before tipoff informed Williams that the pain from his fractured wrist was too intense to play. Also, Henson was slowed by an ankle injury in the first half.
With North Carolina playing so well in the first half, Kansas had to match the offense, and it did. Robinson banked in a jumper and made a three-pointer. Releford, who made one three in his last nine games, knocked one down. Taylor, whose struggles behind the arc continued, found his range from 15 feet and his 22 points were split equally by halves.
“First half, we didn’t guard anybody and they’re not the type of team you want to get into a horse contest with,” Self said. “But then we did a good job of not letting them get comfortable.”
The Jayhawks found a comfort zone of their own, on defense, and the numbers told the story. North Carolina’s second half shooting: seven of 31, and the Tar Heels missed all 10 three-point tries.
And the Jayhawks, who started the season ranked 13th in the preseason and steadily improved throughout a Big 12 championship season, are back in the Final Four for the first time since 2008 and the 14th time overall.
“These guys, nothing fazes them,” Self said. “No matter what the situation is, they just think they’re going to figure it out. And certainly they figured it out tonight.”
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.