Blythe Hastings ’23
Kansas University used the biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament championship game history to beat UNC and win its fourth title. A meeting of college basketball powers in Monday night’s national title game delivered a game for the ages as Kansas rallied from a 16-point deficit to beat North Carolina 72-69 and secure the program’s fourth national championship.
The Jayhawks’ furious rally marked the largest-ever comeback in a national title game. David McCormack scored a critical lay-up with 1:21 remaining to put Kansas ahead 70-69. Then, he added another bucket with 22 seconds left to make it a 72-69 edge. North Carolina missed consecutive 3-pointers on the ensuing possession and a look from the top of the key at the buzzer to cement the outcome.
Kansas jumped out to an early 7-0 lead but was outscored 40-18 over the rest of the first half as the Tar Heels dominated on offense for an 18-2 edge in second-chance points entering the break. But whatever coach Bill Self told the Jayhawks at halftime worked wonders as KU came bursting out of the locker room with 31-10 spurt. McCormack finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds and was particularly good late in the game while battling it out with injured UNC’s Armando Bacot.
The Tar Heels’ junior center was playing on a twisted ankle that he re-injured while maneuvering for a potential go-ahead bucket in the final minute. But he got the best of McCormack in the first half before McCormack came up with key plays late in an epic finish. When David McCormack hit a jumper less than a minute into the game to give the Jayhawks a 5-0 lead, it seemed like he was picking up right where he left off in a semifinal win over Villanova on Saturday. In that 81-65 KU victory, he scored a season-high 25 points.
With Bacot hobbled and McCormack confident from his previous performances in NCAA play and the big points he had put up during the night, the early returns suggested the Jayhawks might have an edge on the interior. Bacot struggled initially, but as the half wore on, UNC’s wounded warrior repeatedly got the best of McCormack, who left the game with 4:17 remaining in the first half after picking up his second foul. His exit came amid a 16-0 run for North Carolina, and things did not improve amid McCormack’s absence. But in the second half, the KU man found his footing.
He finished with his 11th double-double of the season, and his two baskets in the final two minutes made the difference. It’s been an up-and-down career for McCormack, and that was embodied in Monday’s game. Ultimately, it ended on the greatest up as he lifted the Jayhawks to a national title.
The trio of Remy Martin, Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson combined to shoot 3 of 18 from the floor in the first half for Kansas. In the second half, those same three players combined to make 13 of 18 shots from the field. Wilson tied McCormack for a team-high with 15 points, and Braun added a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Martin, meanwhile, hit all four of his shot attempts in the second half, including a trio of 3-pointers.
While Agbaji and McCormack were arguably the most important players for this Kansas team throughout the season, what set the Jayhawks apart were their depth of players. In particular, the dynamic play of Braun and Wilson as players with a unique combination of size and versatility made KU a tough matchup all season.
With Agbaji, Martin and McCormack as seniors on this season’s team, the display from Braun and Wilson may only be a preview of things to come. While both could choose to test out the NBA Draft, the pair of dynamic playmakers could make Kansas a contender to repeat as national champions if they return next season.
Bacot put the Tar Heels on his back in the first half but ran out of gas in the second half, going 0 for 6 from the floor after halftime. With 50 seconds remaining, he twisted his injured right ankle again and fell to the floor in agony while making a move toward the basket with the Tar Heels trailing 70-69.
The play was symbolic of how Bacot gave everything he had before hitting a literal breaking point in the game’s final minute. With guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love combining to shoot 10 of 41 from the floor, North Carolina simply lacked the firepower it needed in the second half to keep pace with the red-hot Jayhawks. Sophomore forward Puff Johnson provided a huge lift off the bench with 11 points, including nine in the second half as he played extended minutes due to Leaky Black’s fouling.
But a UNC squad that got so many clutch buckets from Love, Davis, Brady Manek and Bacot on a memorable run needed just one or two more to get across the finish line. Kansas came out on top, in an exciting battle for the NCAA ages.