SAN ANTONIO (AP)—Roy Williams taught Kansas all about how to handle cruel, crushing disappointments.
Bill Self schooled the Jayhawks on how to dish out some pain of their own.
Kansas left its former coach in the dust Saturday night, getting 25 points and seven rebounds from Brandon Rush to stave off a ferocious comeback by North Carolina for an 84-66 victory in the national semifinals.
Trailing 40-12 late in the first half, Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and the Tar Heels made a valiant rally, getting to within five points with nine minutes left.
But they fell short in their effort to pull off the biggest Final Four comeback ever.
“We sort of came out a little more casual than we would’ve liked and they hit us right between the eyes,” Williams said.
Now, the Jayhawks will play Memphis, an earlier 78-63 winner over UCLA, in Monday’s title game.
Kansas moved within a win of its first national championship since 1988, the year before Williams began his storied 15-year tenure in Lawrence—one that ended when he jilted Kansas for his alma mater.
“I hope it’s set aside and goes away forever,” Williams said of the animosity that has lingered since he left in 2003. “I’m too thin-skinned, probably. … Let’s don’t focus on that. Focus on the great job done by Kansas.”
Hansbrough had 17 points and nine rebounds for North Carolina (36-3)—a typically gutsy effort—but his next move will be to decide whether to come back for his senior season.
Kansas has more pressing things to deal with—stopping fast-breaking Memphis and its sensational freshman Derrick Rose.
“We know we’ve got another step to take Monday night,” Sherron Collins said. “It’s going to be a great matchup. They play fast, we play fast.”
Collins had two assists, a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws during the decisive stretch that saw the Jayhawks (36-3) pad that five-point lead back to 15 and send the Tar Heels into true desperation mode.
Williams stood stoically as the clock ticked down, arms folded, nothing much left to do. Tears usually come pretty quickly after the final buzzer of the season for him, and this season ended one game short of where many thought it might.
“We’ve had a good year, but I don’t think anybody’s goal here was to be one of the top four teams in the country,” Hansbrough said. “It’s to be the top team. I’m frustrated with that.”
Williams got outcoached in this one, especially at the beginning, finding no solution for Kansas’ strategy of dumping the ball inside to Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson and Cole Aldrich.
The Jayhawks also smothered Hansbrough, even flooring him once on a hard foul by Mario Chalmers.
“To start the game, I felt, instead of having 10 hands out there it felt like we had 14 or 16,” said Self, in his first Final Four since replacing Williams five years ago. “Guys were making a move, a reverse pivot, and there were two hands there waiting for them.”
Despite North Carolina’s impressive comeback, the final stats painted a picture of Kansas domination. The Jayhawks shot 53 percent from the floor and held the nation’s second-leading offense to 35 percent. They had nine more rebounds, 10 more assists, six more blocks.
This marked the first chance to see Self and Williams go against each other with their new teams—and on the game’s biggest stage.
Self coached Kansas to the lead. Williams coaxed his team back in it.
But for all North Carolina’s effort, this game was lost early.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life,” Tar Heel guard Marcus Ginyard said of the first 10 minutes.
The basket looked as big as the Alamo for the Jayhawks, who made 12 of their first 16 shots and went on an 18-0 run for a 33-10 lead with 9:31 left.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels went a stunning 9:03 without a basket. No team has overcome a deficit bigger than 22 at the Final Four, and it was around the time the lead was 40-12 that none other than Billy Packer, the CBS analyst, said the game was over.
Not so fast.
Carolina turned this into controlled chaos over the first 10 minutes of the second half, altering Kansas shots and making pretty much everything they threw up—including a 3-pointer by Ellington (18 points) with 9:20 left that made it 58-53 and had the Tar Heel fans in a frenzy.
Throughout the rally, Self called time-out after time-out—KU fans often criticized Williams for not doing the same under similar circumstances—and eventually, North Carolina cooled and Kansas ran away.
Picking a Jayhawks star was as easy as closing your eyes and pointing to a name on the stat sheet.
Aldrich stood out, swatting three shots in the first half and altering more after coming off the bench en route to his eight-point, seven-rebound night. His highlight came after KU missed just its fifth shot of the game, more than 10 minutes into the first half, and he outgrappled Hansbrough for a rebound that resulted in two free throws. That made it 33-10.
Arthur had three buckets and an assist in the first five minutes to start the runaway. Russell Robinson had five points, four assists, three steals and three turnovers over the first 20 minutes—what coach wouldn’t love that?
All that might have helped prove Williams’ theory, as he tried to deflect all the talk of himself this week: That the game would be decided by the players.
The Jayhawks were simply better.
Die-hard KU fans might have deemed it their team’s best moment since the 2003 Final Four, when Nick Collison helped dismantle Marquette 94-61 in the semifinals.
Two nights later, the Jayhawks lost to Syracuse in the finals. With talk swirling that Williams would be headed to Tobacco Road, he said on live TV that he “could give a (bleep) about North Carolina right now.”
Two weeks later, he was wearing Carolina blue and Kansas fans were seeing red.
Maybe now, they’ll be more willing to let bygones be bygones.
“I told my team that I hoped that distraction didn’t bother them, because that would be about as bad as anything you could ever have as a coach,” Williams said.