The University of Kansas staged a historic comeback to defeat North Carolina and win college basketball’s national title Monday, capping a season that marked the sport’s return to relative normalcy.
The Jayhawks’ 72-69 victory in New Orleans came after falling behind by 16 and then pulling off the biggest rally in any national championship game.
Coach Bill Self insisted he didn’t have any magical words at halftime, his team down 15, other than reminding the Big 12 champions they had plenty of time.
“This team has been down before, and I told them at halftime, ‘Would you rather be down 15 with 20 (minutes) left or down 9 with 2 (minutes) left?’” Self told the Superdome crowd, referencing Kansas’ dramatic victory in the 2008 national title game when the Jayhawks were down late to Memphis before rallying.
David McCormack scored Kansas’ final two baskets in the final 1:21, giving his team the lead for good at 70-69 and then another hoop for a three-point cushion.
North Carolina’s Caleb Love, the hero of his team’s semifinal win Saturday, missed a potential tying shot at the horn.
“It hurts for us to get this far and come up short like this, everything we went through,” Love told reporters. “But you know the positive thing: I wouldn’t want to go through this with anybody else.”
The victory was particularly sweet for Self, whose father died on Jan. 20.
“It’s especially special for my family this year because we lost our father two months ago, so we had a lot to play for,” Self said.
It was Kansas’ fourth NCAA Division I title, adding to a blue-blood history that’s matched by Connecticut’s four crowns and topped by UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), UNC (6), Duke (5), and Indiana (5).
UNC has now lost in the title game six times. The Tar Heels are tied for the most runner-up finishes with, coincidentally, Kansas and Duke.
UNC reached Monday night’s title game with a drama-filled victory in Saturday’s national semifinals against bitter rival Duke. That game closed out the career of legendary, and now retired, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The Jayhawks dominated Villanova in Saturday’s other national semifinal game and kept that momentum rolling into the title contest at the Superdome.
Monday night’s title game not only featured two of college basketball’s more storied programs, the floor was shared by two schools with remarkably close roots and ties to the sport’s very foundation.
Late Tar Heels coach and Kansas alum Dean Smith was a member of the Jayhawks’ 1952 NCAA title team before going on to his Hall of Fame career on the sidelines, leading UNC to championships in 1982 and 1993.
This was UNC coach Hubert Davis’ first season in charge, having taken over last year for the retired Roy Williams, who led the Tar Heels to national titles in 2005, 2009 and 2017. Before Williams, a UNC alum, arrived in Chapel Hill, he was the head coach at Kansas for 15 seasons, taking the Jayhawks to four Final Fours and two national title games.
Williams was in the Superdome stands on Monday night to see one former employer beat another in the final game of this 2021-22 college basketball season.
The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, dubbed March Madness and arguably America’s most popular sports competition, was played these past three weeks under remarkably normal conditions, with games held in venues across the nation.
Just a year ago, the tournament was under attendance restrictions and confined to venues in Indiana as the NCAA, based in Indianapolis, in hopes of limiting the threat of Covid-19.
That bubble format still didn’t prevent a tournament game between Oregon and Virginia Commonwealth from being called off because of Covid issues.
March Madness was not played at all in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before the 2019-20 season was shut down, Kansas was No. 1 in both major, national polls.
“To me, this was partially won for them too,” Self told reporters after the game Monday. “Because I always thought the 2020 team was better, more equipped to do well in the NCAA Tournament. After the way these kids played the last month, I think this team can play with any team Kansas has ever put on the floor.”