Thomas Robinson was sitting at his locker, 30 minutes after the biggest game of his life. Kansas had just beat No. 2 Ohio State 64-62 in front more than 70,000 fans inside the Louisiana Superdome. The Jayhawks had erased a nine-point halftime deficit, running off the floor as hundreds of seat cushions rained down on college basketball’s biggest stage.
The crowd in front of Robinson had died down, and now he leaned back in his locker. How did Kansas do it this time? How did they come back again? What was the principal difference in the second half?
Robinson said one word.
“Jeff,” he said, before pausing.
Junior center Jeff Withey had left the locker room by that point, heading down the hall for the post-game press conference. But Withey’s presence was still very much in the room. He had scored four points and taken just four shots. But his seven blocks, eight rebounds and lock-down defense on Ohio State’s wide-bodied power forward, sophomore Jared Sullinger, had changed the game in the second half.
“My teammates definitely look at me and see me as a protector,” Withey said.
On Saturday night, playing in the program’s first Final Four in four years, the Jayhawks had entered the halftime locker room trailing 34-25. Sullinger and sophomore Deshaun Thomas had combined to score 14 points in the first half, and Kansas looked fazed by the stage.
“They dominated us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
But a few things would conspire over the final 20 minutes that allowed Kansas to escape to Monday night to battle with Kentucky in the championship game. And perhaps the biggest — metaphorically and literally — was Withey’s seven-foot frame.
“Big fella here,” Self said, looking at Withey, “I thought played as good of low-post defense on a great player as he could.”
The scouting report, according to senior guard Conner Teahan, said that Sullinger liked to dribble into his moves. And with Thomas on the floor, Kansas couldn’t afford to trap the post with another big guy. Thomas could stretch the floor with his three-point shooting ability, and Robinson had to guard the perimeter, and Sullinger had room to work. But then Thomas picked up his third foul with 17:36 left in the second half. And then his fourth 11:30 left. With Thomas on the bench in foul trouble, the Jayhawks could pay more attention to the pain, throwing more arms and more bodies at Sullinger.
“I think that Sullinger was getting really frustrated,” Teahan said.
Sullinger would make just two of his 11 shots after halftime — five of 19 total — and Ohio State shot just 24.2 percent in the second half. And the night would end with Withey, a soft-spoken former benchwarmer, walking down the hall after another stunning victory. He now had 27 blocks in the NCAA Tournament, two shy of the record, and another game to play. One for the championship.
“Part of me feels like a lot of guys don’t respect him,” senior guard Tyshawn Taylor said of Withey. “They think he’s soft kind of — he’s a big, skinny guy — he’s not tough. But he’s been taking the challenge.”