By Matt Tait.
If North Carolina had hit a shot in the first half, the Kansas University men's basketball team may have found itself trailing by 20 points or more heading into the second half of its third-round game Sunday evening at Sprint Center.
Instead, the Tar Heels shot just 26.2 percent (11-of-42) and that allowed Kansas, which shot just 7-of-28 for 25 percent, to hang around long enough to unleash a furious second-half rally that propelled the Jayhawks to a convincing 70-58 victory and into the Sweet 16 for the third straight season.
After getting out-hustled and pushed around by Carolina (25-11) in the first half, the Jayhawks responded to a 30-21 halftime deficit with a 16-3 run to open the second that put the Jayhawks up 37-35 with 14:35 to play. From there, KU fed off the momentum of its comeback and a pro-KU crowd and steamrolled North Carolina the rest of the way.
The victory was KU's third in three tries against former Kansas coach Roy Williams in the 10 years since his departure. All three have come in the NCAA Tournament.
For the second straight game, senior center Jeff Withey was simply too much, leading KU with 16 points, 16 rebounds and 5 blocks while also delivering a few attitude-changing slam dunks during KU's run to get back into it early in the second half.
KU survived another sub-par game from leading scorer Ben McLemore, who finished with just two points on 0-of-9 shooting (0-6 three-pointers), including a missed alley-oop conversion on the opening possession of the second half. McLemore sat on the bench for most of the final 15 minutes.
Travis Releford (22 points) and Elijah Johnson (five) were both huge during KU's surge to the lead and sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe (12) hit a couple of big three-pointers during the final 10 minutes to keep KU ahead comfortably.
The Jayhawks will head to Arlington, Texas next week to take on Michigan in the Sweet 16.
Here’s a quick look back at some of Sunday's action:
• The game turned when: Travis Releford hit a three-pointer with just under 18:00 to play in the second half. The triple cut Carolina's lead to four — 30-26 — but more importantly took the lid off the basket for the Jayhawks from the outside. The three-pointer was KU's first from long distance of the NCAA Tournament and sparked a 33-10 explosion that put the Jayhawks ahead 54-40 with 8:35 to play.
• Offensive highlight: There weren't many during the first half, but Jeff Withey's monster dunk after catching a pass from Elijah Johnson while charging down the lane certainly changed the vibe of this one early in the second. The dunk, which sent one UNC defender ducking for cover, pulled KU to within two points, 30-28 at the 17:05 mark of the second half. In 2:55, KU knocked seven points off of Carolina's lead, which was nine at halftime and had reached as many as 11 late in the first half.
• Defensive highlight: Jeff Withey officially only had two blocks on the stat sheet at halftime, but he certainly impacted several more and helped keep UNC within arm's reach. One block for which Withey was given credit came at the 8:25 mark of the first half, with KU trailing 14-11. As UNC's Dexter Strickland drove the lane and tried to cross over underneath the hoop, Withey stalked him like a cheetah in the wild and swatted the shot out of bounds before it even had a chance to get above the rim.
• Key stat: Second-half field goal percentage. After both teams struggled to hit shots in the first half — KU shot 25 percent and UNC shot 26 — the Jayhawks caught fire and shot 63 percent in the second half (17-of-27). The Tar Heels, meanwhile, stayed ice cold and finished the game at 30 percent.
• Up next: The win improved KU to 31-5 on the season and put it into the Sweet 16 for the third straight season. The Jayhawks will face fourth-seeded Michigan next Friday in Dallas.