ST. LOUIS - All the upstarts are headed home. It comes down to North Carolina and Kansas, the bluest of the bluebloods, for a spot in the Final Four.
Thomas Robinson had 18 points and 15 rebounds, Jeff Withey blocked 10 shots to finish one shy of the NCAA tournament record, and the second-seeded Jayhawks held off No. 11 seed North Carolina State 60-57 in the Midwest Regional semifinals Friday night.
The top-seeded Tar Heels escaped with a 73-65 overtime win over No. 13 seed Ohio earlier in the night, setting up a Sunday showdown between the Jayhawks and North Carolina, led by former coach Roy Williams.
"They're a great team, great coach, great program," Robinson said. "It's two great programs and when we do meet, I'm pretty sure it's going to go down as a big one."
Kansas (30-6) squandered an eight-point lead in the final few minutes Friday night, and didn't wrap up the win until Richard Howell's off-balance heave at the buzzer came up well short.
The Jayhawks poured off the bench to celebrate, while coach Bill Self seemed to slump his shoulders in exhaustion. He then headed for the scorer's table to shake hands with N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, who needed only one season to turn around the Wolfpack.
C.J. Leslie had 18 points to lead N.C. State (24-13), despite sitting much of the second half with four fouls. Scott Wood finished with 12 points on 2-for-10 shooting, though his biggest mistake wasn't a missed shot but the shot he never even got to attempt.
N.C. State had pulled within 58-57 on a transition layup by C.J. Williams with just over a minute remaining. The teams swapped possessions before Kansas managed to get a layup from Elijah Johnson off an inbound pass from Tyshawn Taylor with 13.5 seconds remaining.
The Wolfpack crossed midcourt and called a timeout to set up a play, which was designed to get the ball to Wood off a skip pass in the corner. But the sharpshooter stepped out of bounds when he tried to pull in the high pass, giving the ball back to Kansas with 5 seconds remaining.
"We did not execute very well. The end of the day, that's my responsibility," Gottfried said.
Robinson was fouled and missed the free throw at the other end, and after a heave three-quarters of the way down court, Howell's tightly guarded shot at the buzzer came up nowhere close.
Johnson finished with 11 points for the Jayhawks, who advanced despite a miserable performance by Taylor at the point. Their second-leading scorer was held to six points on 2-for-14 shooting, missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
Kansas was just 1 for 14 from beyond the arc as a team.
The Wolfpack took a page from Purdue's playbook over the first eight minutes, using constant double teams on Robinson inside and forcing Kansas to settle for jump shots.
It didn't happen, at least early on.
Just as they did against the Boilermakers last weekend, the Jayhawks appeared sloppy and disinterested. Leslie took advantage by scoring five of his 12 first-half points during an opening salvo, and C.J. Williams' 3-pointer gave the Wolfpack a 17-11 lead - their biggest of the half.
Kansas eventually clawed back, relying on defense during a 12-0 run.
Withey provided most of it inside with seven blocks in the first half. A couple of them allowed the Jayhawks to get into transition, where they're at their best, and by the time Taylor scored with 7:10 left in the half, Kansas had pulled into a 23-17 lead.
"I was just in a zone. After the first block I just got in a rhythm," Withey said.
Leslie provided an answer with back-to-back baskets for N.C. State, and his bucket on the heels of a 3-pointer by Scott Wood gave the Wolfpack a 33-32 lead at the break.
They wouldn't lead again.
Elijah Johnson, who provided the big shots that allowed Kansas to reach St. Louis, hit his first 3-pointer of the game out of halftime. It was the start of a 12-2 run during which Leslie was forced to the bench with four fouls and nearly 16 minutes still on the clock.
Kansas extended the lead to 50-40 when Taylor lobbed a pass to Withey for an alley-oop dunk, and a partisan crowd inside the Edward Jones Dome roared in approval.
Leslie finally checked back in with less than 7 minutes left, giving N.C. State a brief boost. But moments later he was back on the floor beside the bench as trainers worked on what appeared to be a cramp in his leg, and Kansas took advantage by pounding away inside.
The Jayhawks managed to coax the lead to 58-50 with just over 3 minutes remaining, and then held on during a furious stretch to reach another regional final.
"We didn't shoot the ball really great. To get the win feels really good," Withey said. "It was all defense, and we're dancing. We're still in the NCAA tournament."