Kansas coach Bill Self and players talk to reporters following the Jayhawks' 64-62 victory over Ohio State in the Final Four on March 31, 2012.
Ohio State's Thad Matta, William Buford and Jared Sullinger talk to reporters following the Jayhawks' 64-62 win over the Buckeyes on March 31, 2012.
New Orleans Kansas University’s basketball team — the one with no McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster — will play in the national championship game Monday night.
“I can’t believe this,” ninth-year KU coach Bill Self said of his thoughts following a one-for-the-ages, 64-62 come-from-behind victory over Ohio State in Saturday’s Final Four semifinal at the Superdome.
“Of all the teams to make it this far ... ”
This somewhat-flawed KU team (32-6) erased a 13-point first-half deficit and nine-point halftime deficit and defeated a Buckeye team (31-8) for the second time this season.
“This has aged me a lot,” Self said with a smile, “but I’ve also never had more fun coaching a group of kids. How cool is it that the two winningest programs of all time play Monday for the national championship?”
Indeed, KU, which is second in all-time wins, will meet Kentucky, which is first, at 8:23 p.m. Monday with everything on the line.
“I feel I had to be as happy as I could get because that had to be as sad as they could get,” KU junior Elijah Johnson said of his reaction as Travis Releford inbounded the ball with 2.9 seconds left and Johnson ran out the clock on KU’s thrilling victory.
The final play came after a lane violation on a free throw that Aaron Craft deliberately missed after a KU foul in the backcourt.
The foul sent the sophomore guard to the line rather than letting OSU attempt a possible game-tying three on the final possession.
The Buckeyes inexplicably did not foul Johnson as the clock expired with KU still up by two.
“I don’t think they knew what was going on,” Johnson said of the final inbounds play. “They were trying to get situated. I saw the referee about to blow the whistle. I knew he was about to hand it to ‘Trav.’ I was trying to hide behind him and play it cool. As soon as the official handed it to Trav, I broke loose. By the time they realized what was going on, it was over.”
Earlier, Releford (15 points, six rebounds) had swished two free throws at 1:37 (following a Jeff Withey block of a Craft shot) to erase a 59-58 deficit and give KU a one-point lead.
Johnson hit a driving layup following another Withey block — this one of William Buford from behind — and KU led, 62-59, at 1:11.
“Travis is the most confident free-throw shooter I’ve ever seen. When he’s at the line, he tells me not to go in the lane (too soon),” said junior forward Thomas Robinson, who scored 19 points, 11 the second half.
“It shows you that all you need at the line is confidence, which he has,” Robinson added.
Withey finished with seven blocks to go with his four points.
“We fed off Jeff’s energy tonight,” said forward Kevin Young, who had five rebounds in 11 minutes.
Up three points, the Jayhawks benefited from a steal by Robinson, who took it away from Buford. However, on the ensuing possession, Withey was called for a controversial travel in the lane at :27.
Buford slam-dunked to cut the gap to 62-61 at :9.6.
Next, Tyshawn Taylor (10 points, 4-for-4 from line) swished two free throws, and KU led, 64-61 with 8.3 seconds left.
Taylor stole the ball, but gunned a pass out of bounds toward Johnson with 3.8 seconds to play, giving OSU a final possession.
“It was like a quarterback third-and-long, and he missed bad. It was not even close,” Self said of Taylor’s pass.
“He could have held the ball there, but that’s Tyshawn, too,” Self added with a laugh.
Up three, Self elected to foul Craft in the backcourt rather than let the Buckeyes attempt a game-tying trey.
“If they were in a two-shot situation, I might not have done it,” Self said of fouling, “but the first one was the one with pressure (in a one-and-one situation). He made it. The second one, he crossed the line way too early.”
Indeed, with OSU down two and its only hope a wacky rebound and stickback shot, Craft instead stepped over the line while horsing up a quick free-throw shot, and KU was able to inbound and end the game.
“That’s coach Self being the genius he is,” Robinson said. “We’re up three with under five seconds left, no reason to let them get a snip at a three. We fouled them and got the ball back and won the game.”
Withey finished with seven blocks while guarding OSU’s Jared Sullinger most of the game. Sullinger hit five of 19 shots and scored 13 points.
“I think my length bothered him a bit,” Withey said. “It was not my best game offensively, but defensively we did what we needed. He’s one of the candidates for player of the year. He can run, jump. I tried to keep my hand in his face.”
Cold-shooting KU hit just 11 of 30 shots the first half (44.6 for game to OSU’s 33.9) and missed five of six threes in falling behind, 34-25, at the break.
Robinson and Taylor combined for 14 points off 6-of-17 shooting. Buford had eight and Sullinger seven for OSU.
“I thought tonight we came out slow, like we were in quicksand,” Self said. “Let’s face it, it’s a different pressure out here tonight. At halftime, we said enough of this nonsense. We came out the second half and defended well, rebounded well, did everything that could give us a chance.”
Now it’s on to Monday’s game against Kentucky.
“I told the guys our Bourbon Street was our locker room,” Self said.