KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Top-seeded Kansas was on the ropes, turning the ball over about as often as it was putting up shots, and had allowed North Carolina to build a comfortable lead by halftime.
Bill Self followed his team into the locker room and, undoubtedly, delivered quite a message, even though his answer dripped with sarcasm when he was asked later to describe it.
“I told them, ‘Hey, just keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll be fine,”’ Self said with a grin.
The Jayhawks were fine indeed, but only because they flipped the script.
They played better on defense, protected the ball on offense — making shots didn’t hurt either — and behind the impassioned play of Travis Releford and Jeff Withey, pulled away from the eighth-seeded Tar Heels for a 70-58 victory Sunday in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
“We played miserably the first half and they took us out of everything,” said Self, whose team trailed the Tar Heels 30-21 at the break. “The second half, we played really, really well.”
Much to the chagrin of former Kansas coach Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels were knocked out of the tournament by Kansas during its 2008 title run and again last year, when the Jayhawks advanced all the way to the Final Four.
“It was definitely a nightmare in the second half,” Williams said, “no question about it.”
Withey and Releford led the way, the 7-footer scoring 16 points and grabbing 16 rebounds and Releford adding 22 points. Together, the two senior starters helped the Jayhawks (31-5) outscore the Tar Heels 49-28 in the second half, pushing the Big 12 champs into a South Regional semifinal against fourth-seeded Michigan on Friday night in Arlington, Texas.
P.J. Hairston scored 15 points and James Michael McAdoo finished with 11 for the Tar Heels.
Of course, the subplot whenever two of college basketball’s bluest blue bloods meet these days centers on Williams, who coached the Jayhawks for 15 seasons and led them to four Final Fours.
Williams has always had a fond place in his heart for his former school, but the Southern charmer was booed heavily by the pro-Kansas crowd during pre-game introductions, and the din never died down in the second half, when things were spinning out of control for North Carolina.
“We lost to another basketball team,” Williams said afterward. “The fact that I coached here for 15 years is extremely important to me, but it doesn’t add anything to today.
“I hurt for my kids in the locker room,” he added quietly. “The NCAA tournament, the swiftness with which your season ends is dramatic, and it hurts everywhere.”
It was hard to blame him for the pain.
Withey made life miserable for the Tar Heels (25-11) in the paint, and the Tar Heels’ new-look, four-guard offense was stuck around the perimeter. And when those shots quit falling, and the veteran Jayhawks started to get into transition, North Carolina was powerless to stop them.
Of course, none of that was the case in the first half.
After the opening minute, the Jayhawks missed 11 straight shots, committed four of their 12 first-half turnovers and went 7-plus minutes without a field goal.
Then, it was North Carolina’s turn to suffer, the Tar Heels missing 12 shots in a row.
Everything switched again toward the end of the half, with the Jayhawks clanking just about every shot they put up off the Sprint Center’s cold rims, and the up-tempo Tar Heels going on a 14-2 charge that helped them carry that nine-point lead into the break.
Kansas shot just 25 percent in the first half — just a bit better than the Tar Heels, who went at a 26-percent clip — as the teams combined to miss a staggering 52 shots.
“We made some bonehead plays, especially me. I had six turnovers myself,” Withey said. “But in the second half, we got a better feel for them, what they were going to do.”
It certainly made a difference.
Withey got the crowd inside the Sprint Center stirring with a putback, and then after the Jayhawks had missed 13 straight 3-pointers to begin the NCAA tournament, Releford hit one from the wing to bring more than 18,000 fans — the vast majority Kansas fans — to their collective feet.
Withey kept the charge going by driving the lane for a dunk, and then got isolated in the post for another dunk. Releford added a putback during their tag-team effort, and Williams — who rarely burns timeouts when teams are on a run — was forced to finally give in.
“The first half was probably the hardest we’ve played all year,” said the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige. “In the second half, they got out in transition, and from there it just kept going.”
The half may have been summed up with one spectacular play by Withey in the waning minutes: He batted a 3-point shot into the air, tracked the ball down himself, and then got it over to Elijah Johnson, who was fouled and made two free throws.
The potential five-point swing gave Kansas a 67-52 lead.
It wasn’t long before that haunting chant of “Rock, chalk, Jayhawk, K-U!” — all too familiar to Williams, and now to his Tar Heels — began to echo through the cavernous building, ultimately replaced by a standing ovation from Kansas’ frenzied fans.
“We benefited from the game being played in Kansas City, no doubt about it,” Self said. “The first half, we didn’t utilize the benefit at all. I thought in the second half, we did.”