By R.L. Bynum
NEW ORLEANS — Two months after a rare taste of the NCAA bubble, North Carolina came so close to completing an unprecedented run to a national title.
Carolina, who went from midseason struggles to playing like one of the best teams in the country, dominated Kansas in the first half but the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks (34–6) stormed back to win 72–69 on Monday night in the Superdome.
The Jayhawks’ rally from 16 points down was the largest in NCAA championship game history.
A potential game-tying 3-point attempt by Caleb Love was an airball at the buzzer after Kansas’ Dajuan Harris had stepped out of bounds with four seconds left. Love finished with 13 points but was 5 of 24 from the floor.
Love said that Coach Hubert Davis and assistant coach Brad Frederick drew up a play for either him or Brady Manek to get the ball.
“It was kind of screen to get me open and it was supposed to be a screen for me to get a flare,” said Love, who rolled an ankle twice during the game. “Got the ball and I took the shot and came up short.”
Coach Davis said that Manek was supposed to get a baseline screen.
“Looked like he was going to be open, throw it to the opposite corner,” Davis said of Manek. “But he stumbled. And so it threw the play totally off. I think he would have been open.
“The first option was for him to shoot the 3,” Davis said. “And then we had Caleb coming off of another screen on the backside that was going to be set by Justin McKoy. But because Brady tripped, it just messed up the play. And Caleb shot a great shot. It just didn’t go in tonight.”
Kansas avenged a 54–53 triple-overtime loss in the 1957 NCAA final.
The Tar Heels finish 29–10 and are now 6–6 in title games. UNC was the fifth No. 8 seed to make a national final and the fourth to lose. Villanova won in 1985 but UCLA (1980), Butler (2011) and Kentucky (2014) all lost.
“I told them this after the game that my desperation for them to have those experiences in a Carolina uniform was very important for me,” Coach Davis said of what he told the team after the game. “I was very thankful that I feel like this year they were able to have a number of experiences that they could grab on and to lean on and to smile about.”
With a healthy Armando Bacot, who was gimpy all game after turning his right ankle in the semifinals against Duke, UNC probably would have won. He just didn’t have the same lift and his usual power inside.
“The last 24 hours, probably 15 of them it was me just trying to get my ankle better,” Bacot said, crediting the efforts of trainer Doug Halverson and strength coach Jonas Sahratian. “They did a great job preparing me for this moment. Right before the game I really couldn’t even jump. And then that’s why I kind of went back. We just kept trying to take a crack at it. They didn’t give up. Luckily, I was able to play 38 minutes.”
Bacot (15 points and 15 rebounds) extended his ACC single-season double-doubles record to 31, tied David Robinson’s NCAA record (1985–86) and became the first player with six double-doubles in the same NCAA tournament. He had to exit in the last minute, though, after rolling his right ankle again.
“I thought I made a good move. I thought I really got the angle I wanted,” Bacot said. “I thought it would have been an easy basket. And then I just rolled my ankle as I was going up and then, I think we were down like two points. I really couldn’t put any weight down on my right leg. Right then and there I probably knew I was done at that point.”
As if battling the Jayhawks’ David McCormack wasn’t enough, his limitations because of the bad ankle made it more of a challenge.
“I don’t think there was any difficulty,” Bacot said. “We all really wanted to win. We came this far and this was a huge goal for us was to just hang up a banner. And we just really wanted to win. I really wouldn’t let anything stop us from getting to that point. It didn’t go the way we wanted, but I was fine.”
Manek put up a double-double (13 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks) and joined Carolina’s Donald Williams (1993) as the only players in NCAA tournament history to score three 3-pointers in all six NCAA tournament games. Williams’ last two games during that 1993 title season were also in the Superdome.
RJ Davis, who played all 40 minutes, had a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Puff Johnson came off the bench to score 11 points before coming out after getting hit in the stomach.
“My whole thing this whole year has been just to stay ready whenever your number is called,” Johnson said. “I can honestly just say that I gave it everything I had. And that’s what I try to do each and every game and each and every day in life. I came into the Final Four with a bit of a banged-up hip flexor from what happened earlier in the season, reaggravated a little bit. And I can honestly say I just gave it everything I had.”
Jalen Wilson and David McCormack led Kansas with 15 points each.
UNC went from shooting 36.4% in the first half to 27.5% in the second while Kansas went from 30.3% to 57.6%. Carolina lost despite outrebounding Kansas 55–35, including 24–8 on the offensive boards.
“It hurts for us to get this far and come up short like this, everything we went through,” Love said. “But the positive thing is I wouldn’t want to go through this with anybody else.”
Carolina weathered Kansas scoring the first seven points of the game to make the rest of the first half one-sided as the Jayhawks looked all out of sorts.
UNC used an 8–2 run to take a 12–11 lead on Bacot’s three-point play with 13:30 left in the first half.
RJ Davis sandwiched an 8–0 run with jumpers to give Carolina a 22–18 lead with 8:11 left. After Kansas tied it, back-to-back Manek 3-pointers started a 16–0 run to shove the lead to 38–22 with 2:23 left. A Johnson layup made it 40–25 by halftime.
Kansas used a 12–5 run in the first 4:20 of the second half to pull within eight points.
The Jayhawks cut it to 46–45 with a 12–1 run with 12:44 left. During that run, Leaky Black picked up his third and fourth fouls and went to the bench. Kansas took a 56–50 lead on a 9–0 run Wilson capped with a three-point play.
“We were just trying to remain positive and things weren’t going our way,” RJ Davis said. “The shots that we usually make, we were missing, coming up short. Everyone just told everyone just stay together. There was a lot of time left.”
Davis steadied the team, hitting a pair of buckets and a Johnson 3 tied it at 57 with 8:16 remaining. After Kansas went up four, two free throws each by Bacot and Manek tied it at 65 with 3:06 left.
After Martin hit a 3-pointer, Love’s drive cut it to one with 2:25 remaining and Manek’s follow shot put UNC up 69–68 with 1:41 left.
David McCormack’s follow shot gave Kansas a one-point edge with 1:21 left and his jumper put the Jayhawks up 72–69 with 22 seconds remaining.
Love and Bacot made the All-Tournament team along with David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji of Kansas and Duke’s Paolo Banchero.
No. 3 Kansas 72, UNC 69
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 10 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 5 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 1–0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2 ACC||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2 ACC||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3 ACC||Las Vegas||Z — No. 7 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3 ACC||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (6–3, 6–3 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||78–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACC||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||74–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACC||Home||Virginia|
|15||88–65 win, 12–4, 4–1 ACC||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||85–57 loss, 12–5, 4–2 ACC||Road||Miami|
|22||98–76 loss, 12–6, 4–3 ACC||Road||Wake Forest|
|24||78–68 win, 13–6, 5–3 ACC||Home||Virginia Tech|
|26||58–47 win, 14–6, 6–3 ACC||Home||Boston College|
|29||100–80 win, 15–6, 7–3 ACC||Home||N.C. State|
|February (7–2, 7–2 ACC)|
|1||90–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACC||Road||Louisville|
|5||87–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACC||Home||No. 9 Duke|
|8||79–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACC||Road||Clemson|
|12||94–74 win, 18–7, 10–4 ACC||Home||Florida State|
|16||76–67 loss, 18–8, 10–5 ACC||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||65–57 win, 19–8, 11–5 ACC||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||70–63 win, 20–8, 12–5 ACC||Home||Louisville|
|26||84–74 win, 21–8, 13–5 ACC||Road||N.C. State|
|28||88–79 OT win, 22–8, 14–5 ACC||Home||Syracuse|
|5||94–81 win, 23–8, 15–5 ACC||Road||No. 9 Duke|
|— ACC Tournament —|
|10||63–43 win, 24–8||Brooklyn||Virginia|
|11||72–59 loss, 24–9||Brooklyn||Virginia Tech|
|— NCAA tournament —|
|17||95–63 win, 25–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Marquette|
|19||93–86 OT win, 26–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Baylor|
|25||71–66 win, 27–9||Philadelphia||No. 11 UCLA|
|27||69–49 win, 28–9||Philadelphia||St. Peter’s|
|2||81–77 win, 29–9||New Orleans||No. 9 Duke|
|4||72–69 loss, 29–10||New Orleans||No. 3 Kansas|
Photo via @UNC_Basketball