The encounter between coach and senior took place sometime after the final buzzer, after the coach had combed the stat sheet and the senior took one final curtain call on the floor inside the Sprint Center.
The No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks had buried No. 8 seed North Carolina with an emotional second-half comeback, advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year with a 70-58 victory. And the coach, Bill Self, had vanquished former KU coach Roy Williams and his Tar Heels for the third time in six years.
But in the moments after the game, Self had found the senior, Travis Releford, for a quiet moment. Releford had scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 38 minutes, willing his team to a victory after it had faced a nine-point deficit at halftime.
This was Self, of course, so he wanted to talk defense. And he tried to point out that the man Releford was guarding, North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock, had only scored five points while shooting one of seven from the field.
“No, he didn’t,” Releford said. “He didn’t get any on me.”
Self smiled as he recalled the story on Sunday night. But it also served as a reminder why the Jayhawks are moving on to play No. 4 seed Michigan at 6:37 p.m. Friday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. On Sunday night, the Jayhawks got two points from their leading scorer, committed 22 turnovers, and headed to locker room at halftime trailing 30-21.
But Releford, a Kansas City native who grew up just a few miles from the Sprint Center, told his teammates that he wasn’t about to let his career end in his hometown.
“It definitely was personal for me,” Releford said. “And I told my teammates that this could be our last 20 minutes. We gotta either leave it all out on the court, or just give it to North Carolina.”
How wrong had it gone in the first half? The Jayhawks had shot just 25 percent, their worst half ever in an NCAA Tournament game. They had turned the ball over 12 times. And they had clanked six three-pointers, extending a drought of three-point shooting that stretched more than 60 minutes — and all of a sloppy victory over Western Kentucky on Friday night.
When asked to grade KU’s first-half performance on offense, Releford said probably an “F or a D.”
But during halftime, Self had told the players to keep shooting. The lid would come off. And if the Jayhawks kept guarding — they held North Carolina to 26.2 percent in the first half — they would be fine.
“If we’re gonna play ugly,” Releford said. “We gotta make the other team play ugly, too.”
In the opening minutes of the second half, Releford finally popped the lid off the goal with a three-pointer. And the run soon turned into a tidal wave. The Jayhawks hit five of eight from three-point range in the second half. And when sophomore Naadir Tharpe drilled a three-pointer with 10:32 left, the Jayhawks had outscored North Carolina 29-8 in the second half and taken a 50-38 lead.
“When all else fails,” senior Kevin Young said. “We just gotta play defense.”
Kansas, 31-5, held North Carolina, 25-11, to 30.1 percent shooting, while senior Jeff Withey anchored the middle with 16 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks. With the season on the line, Withey and Releford had made up for another no-show from freshman guard Ben McLemore, who finished zero for nine from the floor and made just two free throws.
With McLemore struggling, Self stuck with a lineup that had Tharpe (12 points) playing alongside his four seniors. And the Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in Self’s 10 seasons at Kansas.
“Nobody can take away that we’ve had a really good year,” Self said. “You win the league, you win the league tournament, you win 30 games or whatever. That’s a really good year. But in order to make the year special, you gotta advance in the tournament.”
As Releford left the floor on Sunday night, he pointed up toward the crowd and disappeared in the tunnel at the Sprint Center. The Jayhawks had played eight games here this season, and they had won them all. And in the second half, as the partisan crowd began to explode, the Jayhawks had gone on one of those runs that only seem possible inside the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. For a few minutes on Sunday, Releford said, it might as well have been.
“It sounds just like it,” Releford said, “ almost.”
Self, of course, likes to call Releford the Jayhawks’ rock, the player that sets the foundation. On Sunday, he took Releford aside for another message.
“I think it’s the best game he’s ever played,” Self said.
“He doesn’t get tired,” Self added. “He can play all day.”
In the minutes after Sunday’s victory, the Kansas players sat in the locker room and recalled an emotional discussion during halftime. After a horrid first half, the seniors had spoke up, challenging each other. The thing was, Releford stayed mostly quiet. Just a few words, and that was enough.
“He didn’t really say much,” senior Elijah Johnson said. “I guess he thought he should show us.”