ST. LOUIS — Sarah Pyszczynski and Elodie Dempah escaped enemy territory — Lexington, Ky. — and drove six hours through storms and tornado warnings for one reason. They hoped — needed, even — to chant the Rock Chalk chant.
Denied Friday by the closeness of the game, they got to chant their crimson-and-blue hearts out on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional championship. Kansas defeated North Carolina 80-67 to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans.
As the Jayhawks buried North Carolina under a pile of steals and layups in the final two minutes, Jayhawk fans started their signature cheer.
“We had enough of a lead at the end, which was awesome,” Pyszczynski said. “That was what we wanted. That was THE best part.”
KU will play in its 14th Final Four when it faces East Regional champion Ohio State at around 7:49 p.m. Saturday at the Superdome. The Jayhawks started the season highly regarded, as usual, but not anybody’s pick to win a national title. Now they are two wins away from the school’s fourth NCAA title.
“Why not?” Dempah said. “It’s the madness.”
After the game, the friends prepared for the drive back to Kentucky, where the madness will peak with Kentucky and Louisville in the Final Four. Pyszczynski and Dempah are pharmaceutical chemistry graduate students at Kansas who followed their adviser, rather than start their research over, to the University of Kentucky, located in Lexington.
“We followed him, but we are true Jayhawks,” Pyszczynski said. “We’ve been very sad that we haven’t been able to go to games.”
The madness mixed with sadness on the drive home for brothers Dustin and Justin McDonald. As the Jayhawks cut down the nets Sunday, Dustin stood and snapped pictures with his cellphone from the upper level of the dome. Justin slumped in his seat. Dustin, who lives in Lawrence, is a KU fan. Justin, who lives in Belton, Mo., got hooked on Michael Jordan and grew up a North Carolina fan. He plans to name his first child Jordan, regardless of the gender.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been to a tournament game,” Dustin said. “It just so happened both our teams were here. Great experience.”
Especially for Dustin. KU held the Tar Heels to 20 points and seven baskets in the second half and took advantage of the fact that North Carolina missed point guard Kendall Marshall, out with a broken right wrist.
“I didn’t have a lot of expectations,” Justin said. “When you go up against a team like KU, you have to have all your weapons.”
The McDonalds came in Justin’s car. Dustin expected no problems getting a ride.
“I’m very happy for him,” Justin said. “I know he bleeds KU blue. I’ve always said that if anybody beats my team, I want it to be KU.”
Not far from the McDonalds, the Romero family celebrated in section 420, high above the court. Brothers Jose and Adrian brought their young sons on the family’s first tournament experience. Jose and his son live in Overland Park. Adrian and his son live in Chicago. Jose’s son Landon wore a blue No. 32 KU jersey and Adrian’s son A.J. wore Thomas Robinson’s white No. 0. From their vantage point, opposite the KU basket, Elijah Johnson’s back-breaking three-pointer looked short. It swished to give KU a 71-67 lead with 3:07 to play, and the Tar Heels never recovered.
The Romeros slapped hands with each other and with strangers, pounded on their chairs and waved their arms. Tyshawn Taylor’s steal and three-point play about a minute later put KU up 74-67 and set off more jubilation.
“We’ll try to make this a tradition after today’s outcome,” Jose said. “I was very nervous. As the game went on, it was great and it was a great experience to have that here with my son and my brother and his son.”
KU fans dominated the crowd of 24,107 on Sunday. It will be harder to claim home-court advantage in New Orleans with Kentucky’s enormous following mobilizing to cheer the Wildcats against Louisville in a national semifinal that also serves as a state championship.
For Jayhawk fans from Wichita, Lawrence and Kansas City, the drive is around 14 hours. Pyszczynski and Dempah are willing to make the 12-hour trip from the shadow of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, if they can find tickets. The Final Four is sold out, although tickets are available on secondary sellers such as primesport.com, stubhub.com and ticketsforless.com. On Sunday, prices for all-session passes started at $190 and ranged to more than $10,000.
“That will be difficult,” Dempah said. “We are grad students. We would have to win the lottery.”