KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas’ defense slung some serious mud Sunday at the Sprint Center.
In fact, all that defensive mud saved KU from taking a bath in the embarrassment of being the second No. 1 seed to lose in the NCAA Tournament.
When the Jayhawks’ offense was as ugly as, well, mud in the first half and they trailed North Carolina by nine points at halftime, their defense kept them going and on the way to a 70-58 victory.
“We can’t catch up if we don’t get stops,” senior point guard Elijah Johnson said.
So the nation’s top team in field-goal defense kept doing what it does best until a glimmer of offense broke through the clouds.
But even stops weren’t enough in the first half, because the Jayhawks had 12 turnovers and hit 25 percent of their shots.
“We knew we had our defense working,” center Jeff Withey said, “so it had to be a matter of time. We kept muddying up their offense.”
While KU’s offense was floundering, its defense was holding North Carolina to 11-of-42 shooting for 26.2 percent in the first half.
That’s what KU did in beating the Tar Heels in last year’s NCAA regional final, so they knew it was coming.
“We just got out of rhythm – again,” said North Carolina guard Reggie Bullock. “Give their defense credit. It’s good.”
North Carolina shot 30.1 percent for the game. More importantly, the Jayhawks used the Tar Heels’ nine turnovers after the break to set up some fastbreaks and open shots.
Withey balanced his season-high six turnovers with five blocked shots.
“I think there was something wrong with the ball,” Withey said with a chuckle.
Then squinting through a shiner he had on his swollen right eye, he added in a serious tone, “We had the energy about us that we weren’t going to take anything from anybody.
“In the tournament, it’s all about defense. Offense is going to come and go. It’s a cliche, but defense does win championships.”
The specifics of KU’s defense had forward Kevin Young chasing Carolina’s top shooter, guard P.J. Hairston, and forward Travis Releford on Bullock most of the game.
Bullock made 1 of 7 shots. Hairston finished with 15 points, but he had to take 17 shots to make six.
“Our perimeter defense was keyed by Travis and Kevin,” KU coach Bill Self said. “Then it’s awful nice that when we do have breakdowns, they have to drive into Jeff.”
One of Withey’s blocks set up Releford’s three-point play that stretch KU’s lead to five points about seven minutes into the second half.
“You have to give them credit,” Tar Heel coach Roy Williams said. “They led the nation in defensive field-goal percentage for a reason.
“When the ball started to go in for them, their defense got even stronger.”
Not according to Johnson.
“We think points, look at the scoreboard or count baskets,” he said. “We count stops. One stop is good, two stops is great, three stops is fantastic.
“We like to feel fantastic.”