Bob Lutz: Withey rejects losing

03/23/2012 12:00 AM

04/09/2012 3:19 PM

Kansas has no more skin on its teeth.

If you thought the Jayhawks’ come-from-behind win over Purdue was nausea-inducing, then KU’s tough 60-57 victory over North Carolina State in the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals Friday night was almost too much to handle.

Now these Jayhawks, near and dear and suddenly dangerous to the hearts of their legion of fans, get to play North Carolina and Roy Williams on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.

Need an antacid?

Kansas is not playing well, but is 3-0 in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks aren’t shooting; they were 1 of 14 from the three-point line Friday night and made 37.5 percent of their shots overall. That’s three games in a row well under 40 percent.

But this well-coached, versatile team is finding other ways to win. Less attractive ways.

Thomas Robinson bulled his way to 18 points and 15 rebounds. But he wasn’t without flaws, as his 4-of-9 performance from the free-throw line attests.

Poor Tyshawn Taylor has picked a terrible time to play his worst offensive basketball of the season. He made 2 of 14 shots against N.C. State and missed all six of his three-pointers. He’s now 0 for 12 from the three-point arc during the tournament. But he was one of the most indispensible Jayhawks anyway, with 10 rebounds and a solid floor game at both ends.

Taylor has to play whether he’s making shots or not.

Elijah Johnson made big baskets after air-balling an early three-pointer, drawing a sly smile from his coach, Bill Self, who clapped his hands and implored Johnson to keep shooting. His lay-up late gave the Jayhawks a three-point lead when it was looking like the game, just minutes before firmly in their grasp, might slip away.

But the star of the night was 7-foot Jeff Withey, with eight points and five rebounds.

Ah, but those numbers don’t tell the story.

That number under the blocked shots is how Withey is judged. And it rose to 10, a season-high for a guy who adores it when an opponent’s shot goes up anywhere close to him.

Withey watched as one North Carolina State player after another dribbled into the lane with the idea of making a shot. After a while, it was probably all he could do to keep from laughing.

“Really, you’re coming in here again,’’ the 7-foot Withey must have been saying. “OK, if you say so.’’

North Carolina State was rejected more than a telephone solicitor. Withey, barely able to get from one end of the court together at times because of the heavy minutes he played, nonetheless found ways to get his long arms and big hands on 10 Wolfpack shots, changing at least as many others.

N.C. State never stopped attacking the rim. But Withey never stopped protecting it, either. And largely because of his impenetrable defense, the Jayhawks are moving on to the Elite Eight.

“That’s what I do is block shots,’’ an ashen Withey said after the game.

And he’s happy to have another chance to swat Sunday against North Carolina in a game that will decide which team reaches the Final Four. Yes, we’re headed for the second matchup between Williams, who coached for 15 years at Kansas before leaving for Carolina nine years ago, and Bill Self, who replaced Williams and beat Roy in their only meeting, the national semifinal game in 2008.

But before we get to much more about the coaches who will butt heads Sunday, it’s worth discussing the game the player whose head rises highest in almost every game he plays..

Withey has been a shot-blocking machine all season, averaging just more than three per game. But he had his third block just four minutes in against a North Carolina State team that obviously felt like it could pound the ball inside and do some damage.

That approach never changed, even as Withey summoned his inner Bill Russell. There’s not as much glamour in blocking shots as there used to be; perhaps Withey helped the art with his performance Friday.

It is an art, requiring timing, toughness and size. And Withey has them all, especially size.

While Kansas continued to struggle with its shooting, Withey did his best to keep North Carolina State from shooting. Or at least from getting many shots in a position to go in.

He had nine blocks against Long Beach State and Kansas State, but it seemed like he got a hand on almost every shot the Wolfpack was able to get near the basket.

He was particularly good trailing in transition and timing his jump to tip the ball as it left the hand of a North Carolina State player.

Withey played a season-high 33 minutes against an athletic North Carolina State front line. Kansas needed every second of his performance.

He went to the bench late in the second half breathing heavily and constantly wiping his head with a towel. His face looked like he had just seen a ghost.

Didn’t matter. Self waved Withey back in after just a minute or two on the bench and Withey went right back to doing what he does best — clogging the middle and owning the basket.

It was a memorable performance because of a skill that doesn’t get recognized as much as it should. If just a couple of those shots that Withey sent back go on, we’re not talking about a KU-North Carolina dream matchup Sunday. We’re talking instead of the bus the Jayhawks ride in back to Lawrence.

So no, Kansas isn’t playing well, at least not shooting well. But the Jayhawks are doing the little things. But if you think blocking shots is a little thing after watching Withey send so many shots back Friday night, you’re not giving it enough recognition. Withey blocked the Jayhawks to this victory.

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