An angry Jeff Withey walked into the Kansas locker room at halftime during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament showdown against North Carolina at the Sprint Center.
The top-seeded Jayhawks trailed Roy Williams’ Tar Heels 30-21, but Withey wasn’t ready for his Kansas career to be finished.
“Is this it?” Withey prodded his teammates. “Are we done?”
The rest of the players in Kansas’ locker room apparently weren’t ready for the season to end either, rallying to the Sweet 16 behind Withey’s dominant second-half performance in a 70-58 victory.
“When I have to, I’ll speak out,” said Withey, who finished with 16 points, going five for six from the field in the second half, and 16 rebounds.
“Everybody else was kind of down and whatnot, but I knew somebody had to do it. So I just stepped up. I’m not afraid to get in somebody’s face at all. I might be a little soft-spoken, but I’ve also got a little fire in me.”
Like most of the Jayhawks, Withey hadn’t played well — particularly at the offensive end — during the first half.
Withey had four points on one-for-five shooting at halftime. He had grabbed nine rebounds and blocked a couple shots but also had five turnovers and, by his own admission, had played soft.
“We did a little bit of that (screaming and yelling), but really Jeff was just talking to us,” senior forward Kevin Young said. “He has a deep voice and showed how mad he was a little bit.”
It’s one thing to talk about playing tougher, but Withey also led the charge — and the Jayhawks followed his lead.
Withey swatted Marcus Page’s scooping layup try into the North Carolina bench on Kansas’ first defensive possession in the second half then added a putback tip-in at the other end.
But it was back-to-back dunks only 30 seconds apart a few minutes later that turned the Jayhawks’ second-half spark into a raging inferno, igniting the pro-Jayhawks crowd and touching off a 33-10 run that erased the Tar Heels’ halftime lead and buried Roy Williams’ squad.
“The first half I went really soft,” he said. “Coach (Bill) Self came in at halftime and said, ‘We have a size advantage. We’re not using it, though.’ I knew I had to just go through everybody and dunk. That’s what happened in the second half. I just had to go stronger.”
Withey was credited with five blocked shots.
“It seemed like, to me, he blocked more than five shots,” Self said, “but I thought he was fantastic.”
Asked what was key to his season-high 16 rebounds, Withey replied, “Toughness. The first half, we were getting out-rebounded. We knew we had to step up. I got a nice shiner, so I was worried about getting hit anymore.”
Once Withey punched back, North Carolina never had a chance.
“After I got that dunk down the middle of lane early in the half, I felt pretty good after that,” Withey said. “My energy was pumped up. … The second half I just knew what was at stake and I didn’t want my season to be over, so I stepped up my game.
“I was very determined that this wouldn’t be my last game. I think all four of the seniors felt that way. We didn’t want it to be over.”