After 20 minutes on Sunday, the Kansas Jayhawks’ season was on the line. They had missed layups, and clanked three-pointers, and thrown passes that appeared destined for trombone players.
Former Kansas coach Roy Williams had returned to the Sprint Center, playing his former team for the third time in six years. And here he was, ready to play spoiler on a Sunday afternoon in Kansas City.
But Kansas senior Travis Releford had returned to his hometown to play for the final time.
Releford finished with 22 points and eight rebounds as the No. 1-seeded Jayhawks mounted a furious second-half comeback in a 70-58 victory, advancing to the Sweet 16 in Arlington, Texas.
KU senior Jeff Withey added 16 points and 16 rebounds as the Jayhawks erased a 30-21 halftime deficit and buried the Tar Heels in front of a pro-Kansas crowd inside the Sprint Center.
Withey once said this place felt like a second home. The Jayhawks had played seven games inside the building this season, and they had won them all.
And for a span of 20 minutes on Sunday — a second half that would decide the Jayhawks’ season — the Jayhawks made a run that perhaps would have only seemed possible in the confines of Allen Fieldhouse.
The Jayhawks stroked threes. And got stops. And the momentum began to swell, like a growing ball of energy on a snowy day in downtown Kansas City.
Kansas opened the second half on a 29-8 run, turning a 30-21 halftime deficit into a 50-38 lead with 10:38 to play. The early dagger came from sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe, who capped the assault by draining a three-pointer. But the bulk of the heavy lifting had come from Withey and Releford, two seniors who wouldn’t let the Jayhawks go down at home.
For the second straight game, freshman guard Ben McLemore had been a no-show. He finished zero of nine from the field, hitting just two free throws for two points. And when the game was on the line in the second half, Self stuck with a lineup of Tharpe playing alongside the Jayhawks’ four seniors.
Tharpe finished with nine points while knocking down three three-pointers in the second half. The Jayhawks hadn’t even made a three-pointer in the NCAA Tournament until Releford connected from deep in the opening minutes of the second half.
After going zero for six from three against Western Kentucky, and bricking six more threes in the first half against North Carolina, the Jayhawks hit five of eight from deep in the second half.
But KU also played defense, with Releford and Withey anchoring a unit that held North Carolin to 30.1 percent shooting.
Of course, it was almost a nightmare.
The Jayhawks shot just 25 percent in the first half as they fell behind 30-21 to No. 8 seed North Carolina on Sunday in the round of 32 matchup at the Sprint Center. It could have been worse, of course. North Carolina nearly matched the Jayhawks’ atrociousness, hitting just 26.2 percent (11 of 42) in the opening half.
In a highly anticipated rematch between two blue-blood programs, the Jayhawks appeared tight and rushed on offense, struggling to finish in the paint. The nine-point deficit matched Kansas’ largest halftime deficit of the season.