Jeff Withey was gassed, heaving and huffing as he jogged downcourt midway through the second half on Friday night. He looked toward the bench, tugging his jersey as junior Kevin Young prepared to enter the game. Finally, rest.
Only Young wasn’t coming for him. He was checking in to give Thomas Robinson a quick blow, and Withey would have to wait a few more possessions for his breather.
No time to sit. Not when Withey, a junior center, was playing the best defensive game of his career. Not with Kansas in a slugfest with No. 11 seed North Carolina State.
In a game where a bucket or an extra possession might mean the difference between victory and the season’s end, Withey stood up when it mattered most, finishing with eight points and 10 blocks as Kansas gutted out an 60-57 victory over North Carolina State inside the Edward Jones Dome.
“We’d probably be talking about a loss right now without Jeff,” Kansas senior Conner Teahan said.
Withey’s 10 blocks were one short of the NCAA Tournament record, set by Shaquille O’Neal. But the biggest defensive play came in the final seconds, with Kansas protecting a 58-57 lead. North Carolina State’s Scott Wood had clanged a three-pointer off the rim, and the ball had ended up in the hands of C.J. Leslie, the Wolfpack’s leading scorer.
He headed straight for the basket, jumping toward the rim. Only Withey recovered, meeting Leslie and Thomas Robinson near the bottom of the backboard and denying Leslie with 18 seconds left.
“Everybody was kind of scrambling,” Withey said. “I don’t remember much.”
When Self met the media before a Tuesday practice at Allen Fieldhouse, Self suggested that Withey would finally be freed from a two-game tournament fog.
In Kansas’ tournament opener against Detroit, Withey had finished with a quiet nine rebounds and five blocks against an otherwise overmatched Detroit squad. Two days later, with Purdue attacking Kansas with a perimeter-heavy lineup, Withey was limited to just four points and two rebounds in 15 minutes.
On Friday, in the opening 20 minutes, Withey denied seven shots and altered a few more. And the second half was more of the same.
The middle of the paint was sealed off. North Carolina State’s guards were forced to go over or around Withey — usually with little success.
“I was feeling it,” Withey said. “The first half, they were coming at me. I was in the zone.”
In the process, Withey also set the Jayhawks’ single-season record for blocks. He upped his block total to 126, eclipsing Cole Aldrich’s mark, set in the 2009-10 season.
On Sunday, the Jayhawks will match up with No. 1 seed North Carolina, a team that features All-American candidate Tyler Zeller and lengthy big-man John Henson in the frontcourt. Once again, Withey will see players his own size — and perhaps a little bigger.
“That’s what we wanted,” Withey said. “We wanted North Carolina.”