NCAA Tournament

Blair Kerkhoff: A North Carolina championship and Final Four with Kansas echoes

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, center, celebrates with his team after the championship game against Gonzaga at the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday in Glendale, Ariz. North Carolina 71-65.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, center, celebrates with his team after the championship game against Gonzaga at the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday in Glendale, Ariz. North Carolina 71-65. AP

North Carolina’s 71-65 victory in the NCAA championship game capped a Final Four weekend with a distinct Kansas accent.

The awards programs were dominated by Jayhawks with senior point guard Frank Mason winning every major individual honor presented here, and coach Bill Self was announced as a Naismith Hall of Fame member. The Jayhawks coaching staff went from presentation to presentation, and it’s difficult to imagine a weekend of greater recognition for the program short of appearing in the games.

Kansas also was connected to the champion.

In the winning locker room, Tar Heels’ assistant coach C.B. McGrath broke down a game that wasn’t a thing of beauty. North Carolina shooting start Justin Jackson missed all nine of his shots from deep. Bearded behemoth Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga couldn’t buy a bunny, bricking eight of nine.

And the fouls, 27 whistled by Michael Stephens’ crew in the second half, turned the game into a slog.

“I don’t know if everybody had their legs or those were the freshest two teams I’ve ever seen play,” McGrath said.

The game breakdown was McGrath’s last for North Carolina. Earlier in the day, he was named the head coach of UNC Wilmington, becoming the latest Kansas graduate to become a head coach.

“All I wanted to do growing up was to play basketball at Kansas,” said McGrath, the state’s player of the year as a senior at Topeka West High.

McGrath walked on, earned a scholarship, played on the powerful teams of the mid-1990s with Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz, won four conference championships and never lost a home game. He was on a coaching track the moment he walked on campus.

“It was a four-year job interview,” McGrath said.

He joined the staff immediately, an opening created by the departure of Matt Doherty to Notre Dame, and has been with Roy Williams ever since. He’ll be introduced at Wilmington on Thursday.

Reserve guard Shea Rush, whose father Jaron was a Kansas City high school star, helped get North Carolina ready for its national title game victory over Gonzaga.

With the streamers and confetti falling and before the college hoop anthem “One Shining Moment,” Williams told Jim Nantz that before the game he had written on the grease board that the Tar Heels needed to be “tough enough.”

Shea Rush helps in that department.

Rush is a freshman walk-on who played at Barstow for former Jayhawk guard Billy Thomas.

Rush appeared in 15 games this season, including two NCAA games, but one of his two great values is as a practice team member, helping in the toughness department.

The Tar Heels were tougher down the stretch, scoring the game’s final eight points to overcome a two-point deficit with two minutes remaining.

“My goal is to get these guys as ready as possible,” Rush said. “From the moment I got on campus the goal was to win a national championship. We truly believed we could do that.”

Rush’s other contribution: hats. He designed and made one for himself. Teammates noticed and asked to get in on the fashion, and Rush created 24 for players and coaches. A collection is coming soon to his website shearush.com, but you can find some of his photography work there.

About the hats, “everybody brought them on the trips.”

When the Tar Heels gutted out a comeback victory over Arkansas in the second round, Williams, who never tempts fate, told Rush the hats were accompanying the team to the next rounds.

“That was a little pressure,” Rush said. “There was a lot riding on the hats.”

Rush is the son of Sarah Hofstra and Jaron Rush, who were in the stands during the Final Four games. Jaron, one of the best players in Kansas City high school annals, is the oldest of three Rush brothers but the only one who didn’t play in the NBA. Jaron spent two seasons at UCLA before an ill-advised attempt to play in the pro ranks.

Shea, who grew up with his mother, thought of his dad during the celebration.

“My dad never pushed me to play basketball,” Shea Rush said. “He was pretty darned good but he wanted me to find my own way. I’m able to call him, ask him questions. He never made it this far, never to the Final Four or win a national championship. I think the pride he has is through the roof. He wears my jersey to work. He couldn’t be happier for me.”

Williams knew the question about Dean Smith was coming.

Monday’s victory gives North Carolina six national championships. The first came in 1957 in Kansas City over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in triple overtime. The next two occurred in 1982 — the Michael Jordan go-ahead jumper to beat Georgetown — and 1993. That was against Michigan with Chris Webber calling a timeout the team didn’t have, and a technical foul that helped seal the Tar Heels’ triumph.

Smith, the legendary coach born in Emporia, who played at Topeka High and for the Kansas 1952 NCAA title team and 1953 runner-up, was North Carolina’s coach for the latter two.

He’s also the coach Williams reveres, and it almost pains him to know he now has one more national championship by his name.

Only John Wooden with 10, Mike Krzyzewski with five and Adolph Rupp (another former Jayhawk) with four have more than Williams’ three.

“I really don’t think Roy Williams should ever be put in the same sentence with Dean Smith,” Williams said. “I really don’t.”

But there Williams is, climbing the list of coaching greats by capturing another championship, one with Kansas echoes.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

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