Kansas’ 64-62 victory over Ohio State in the national semifinals on Saturday could be offered as the most improbable of its NCAA Tournament journey.
The next one seems impossible. But if there’s a lesson to the Jayhawks’ run, it’s never to count them out.
“Oh, nobody outside of the Jayhawk Nation thinks we can win that one,” Kansas assistant coach Barry Hinson said. “And maybe some of them ”
The next task is top-ranked Kentucky on Monday night for the national championship, an occasion that came about by another amazing performance by the Jayhawks.
Not amazing as in well played, but by adding another game of looking at times dead in the water and coming out on top.
“We still haven’t played terrific in the tournament,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But somehow these guys find ways to win games.”
This time, Kansas trailed the Buckeyes by 13 in the first half, and after the opening moments didn’t lead again until less than 3 minutes remaining.
The Jayhawks didn’t lead for good until 97 seconds remained when Travis Releford made two free throws.
Since this is Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, there would be no coasting to the victory.
Kansas was called for traveling and threw it away in the final seconds while trying to preserve a lead.
But preserve the Jayhawks did, and they won this the way they defeated Detroit, Purdue, North Carolina State and North Carolina in previous NCAA games.
They turned on the defense.
Trailing by nine at halftime, Kansas forced Ohio State to miss its first 10 shots in the second half.
In the second half, KU held the Buckeyes to 24.2-percent shooting (eight for 33).
All-America forward Jared Sullinger finished with 13 points but needed 19 shots. He made five. Forward DeShaun Thomas went three for 14.
“Sometimes it happens,” Sullinger said. “The ball rolls that way.”
Or it gets stuffed by Jeff Withey, who blocked seven shots including big ones at the beginning and end of the second half.
Releford’s free throws and his hustle finishing plays on run-outs.
Elijah Johnson collecting 10 rebounds on a night when he missed a big chunk of the second half after collecting his fourth foul.
Tyshawn Taylor picking up nine assists and outplaying Aaron Craft after the Ohio State guard controlled the game in the first half.
And once again, Kansas went to the triangle-and-two defense to slow down an Ohio State team that was playing at full strength. Remember, All-America Jared Sullinger didn’t play against the Jayhawks in KU’s regular-season victory in December.
Ohio State led 55-49 with 5:22 remaining when, once again in NCAA play, Kansas started making huge plays.
Thomas Robinson, who led the way with 19 hard-earned points, knocked down a jumper. Johnson scored at the basket on a run out, and when Releford hit two free throws with 2:48 left, Kansas led 56-55, its first lead since 2-0.
Ohio State restored a three-point lead, but back came KU. Taylor inside, then two more Releford free throws gave KU a 60-59 edge.
It grew to 64-61 with Taylor’s two free throws at 8.3 seconds, but with a chance to seal the victory — Taylor stole the inbounds and promptly threw it away — KU had to survive a final Ohio State thrust. Craft made the first of two free throws, purposely tried to miss the second but went into the lane too soon.
Early on the game was unfolding in a similar fashion to the Purdue game, only without an individual star like the Boilermakers’ Robbie Hummel.
Ohio State players were taking turns attacking Kansas. William Buford knocked down two straight threes. Craft was controlling the game with his penetration, and Kansas was struggling on offense.
Had it not been for a Withey block of Craft that started a run out finished by Releford at the buzzer, Kansas would have had its lowest scoring first half of the season. As it was, the Jayhawks trailed 34-25.
“Once we got in that locker room he basically told us we were better than this and we had to do what we do best,” Johnson said of Self. “It clicked.”
Ohio State missed its first 10 shots after halftime and Kansas had forged a 38-38 tie six minutes into the half.
But Kansas didn’t lead until late. When it was anybody’s game toward the end, the Jayhawks seized it.
“This is kind of who we are,” Self said.