ST. LOUIS — Thomas Robinson beckoned for more noise just as he applied scissors to the net. Giddy fans were happy to oblige.
Elijah Johnson ran through the tunnel punching clenched fists in the air.
Tyshawn Taylor shouted, “Gonna get me some gumbo!”
The sights and sounds that punctuated Kansas’ 80-67 conquest of North Carolina for the Midwest Regional championship could not have been envisioned when the Jayhawks opened practice in October.
Not with one returning starter and a newcomer class abbreviated by ineligibility.
And not with a program that took earlier than expected pratfalls in each of last two NCAA Tournaments.
But there they were cutting nets and ordering gumbo for the Final Four trip to New Orleans and a national semifinal date with Ohio State.
“I think this would have been a year if we got to the second weekend, most Kansas faithful would have been happy,” Jayhawk coach Bill Self said. “But I don’t think those guys would have been satisfied.”
Those guys are the ones who locked the Tar Heels in a vice grip in the game’s second half and especially over the final six minutes.
At the most critical juncture of the season, when the game had been a battle of wills between North Carolina’s offensive mastery — operating at near full capacity even without inactive point guard Kendall Marshall — and Kansas’ defensive toughness, the Jayhawks prevailed.
North Carolina forward John Henson stepped to the line when the teams returned from a media timeout with 3:58 remaining and made one of two to trim the Kansas lead to 68-67.
To that point, after a frenzied first half that ended in a 47-47 deadlock, the Jayhawks had opened small leads only to have North Carolina offer an answer.
Now, with a one-point difference, the game was up for grabs.
And North Carolina didn’t score again.
The Jayhawks ended on a defensive-fueled 12-0 streak. The Kansas team that has survived NCAA scares against Purdue and North Carolina State by putting its faith in its defensive will turned to its power once again.
But first, Johnson loosened things up with a three-pointer, launched a couple of feet from the KU bench when the Tar Heels’ defense gave him a slight opening.
“I wouldn’t want to go home tonight saying I could have shot that three when the defense backed off,” Johnson said. “I made them pay.”
Just as he did with the monster triple that proved to be the game-winner against the Boilermakers and the hoop at the basket that gave the Jayhawks breathing room against the Wolfpack.
Kansas seemed energized by the shot. Two possessions later, Jeff Withey blocked Henson’s shot then alertly tipped the ball to Taylor who raced to the hoop and was fouled by Stilman White.
“(Jeff) made eye contact with me after the block, and as soon as he landed back on the ground he tipped it to me as hard as he could,” Taylor said.
The three-point play opened a 73-67 lead. Withey then blocked a White short jumper. This time Releford got the transition dunk with 1:29 remaining and the Jayhawks began to feel it. Withey’s blocks came while he was playing with four fouls.
Over the final 20 minutes, North Carolina was outscored 33-20. It didn’t make a basket in the final 5:46, and most of this came against a triangle-and-two defense that put Taylor at the point and Releford and Johnson (and Conner Teahan when he was in the game), formed the bottom of the triangle intended to bother gifted North Carolina scorers Henson and Harrison Barnes.
That’s precisely what happened. They couldn’t get shots, much less score, as Kansas used the gimmick for much of the game’s final eight minutes.
“Once we understood they couldn’t score in it, we just kept playing it,” Taylor said.
While Kansas players identified the triangle as a critical component for the outcome, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he wasn’t so sure.
“I know they did for one possession, and they may have for a second possession,” Williams said. “I’m not sure about that.”
Williams and the Tar Heels were more certain that KU was the aggressor. Even after a first half in which North Carolina shot 63.6 percent, its second-best marksmanship for a half this season, there was no separation between the teams. Kansas also had its best shooting half of the tournament.
This was happening without Marshall, who about three hours before tipoff had informed Williams that the pain from his fractured wrist was too intense to play. Also, Henson was slowed by an ankle injury in the first half.
With North Carolina playing so well in the first half, Kansas had to match the offensive show, and it did. Robinson banked in a jumper and made a three-pointer. Releford, who made one three in his last nine games, knocked one down. Taylor, whose struggles behind the arc continued, found the range from 15 feet and his 22 points were split equally by halves.
“First half, we didn’t guard anybody and they’re not the type of team you want to get into a H-O-R-S-E contest with,” Self said. “But then we did a good job of not letting them get comfortable.”
The Jayhawks found a comfort zone of their own, on defense, and the numbers told the story. North Carolina’s second half shooting: 7 of 31, and the Tar Heels missed all 10 three-pointers.
And the Jayhawks, who started the season ranked 13th and steadily improved throughout a Big 12 championship season, are back in the Final Four for the first time since 2008.
“These guys, nothing fazes them,” Self said. “No matter what the situation is, they just think they’re going to figure it out. And certainly they figured it out tonight.”
Percentages: FG .460, FT .750. 3-Point Goals: 4-14, .286 (Johnson 2-5, Robinson 1-1, Releford 1-2, Teahan 0-1, Taylor 0-5). Team Rebounds: 1. Blocked Shots: 3 (Withey 3). Turnovers: 8 (Taylor 3, Johnson 2, Robinson, Releford, Young). Steals: 9 (Taylor 5, Releford 2, Johnson, Teahan). Technical Fouls: None.
North Carolina (67)
Percentages: FG .438, FT .750. 3-Point Goals: 2-17, .118 (Watts 1-2, Bullock 1-5, Hairston 0-2, White 0-3, Barnes 0-5). Team Rebounds: 5. Blocked Shots: 6 (Zeller 4, McAdoo, Henson). Turnovers: 10 (Barnes 3, Bullock 2, Zeller 2, Hairston, Watts, Henson). Steals: 5 (Watts 2, McAdoo 2, White). Technical Fouls: None.
Att.–24,107. Officials–Tony Greene, Doug Shows, James Breeding.