NEW ORLEANS — What a team, what a journey, what a moment.
Now there is a new and extraordinary chapter in the long, long, long history of Kansas basketball. The Jayhawks had won 2,356 games over three centuries before Monday night. But never one quite like this.
Now there is a new glitter to the legacy of Bill Self. A coach wins one national championship, and he’s special. A man wins a second, and he’s rubbing shoulders with giants. Dean Smith won that many. Henry Iba, Denny Crum. But nobody else from Kansas. And he did it while talking often Monday night to his father, who died 10 weeks ago.
Now there is a new championship game to cherish for its volatility, its twists and its turns, where nothing was sure until the last second was gone and the confetti poured down.
Now there is a new hard-luck moment to live in NCAA tournament lore; one of those whims of fate that is so ironic, it is as if the gods of the game themselves played a hand.
Kansas won a game and a championship 72-69 Monday night, even though the Jayhawks trailed by 16 points. No team had ever done that before, not in 82 NCAA tournaments. “I think the way we won made it even more special,” Self said. “When we saw our own blood, we didn’t panic.”
Kansas won a game that went thisaway and then thataway. Over a 16-minute span in the first half, North Carolina outscored Kansas by 23 points. Over a 10-minute span in the second half, Kansas outscored North Carolina by 21.
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Kansas won a game where the biggest turnover of the night — maybe the season — came because a Tar Heel was courageously playing through the pain of an injured ankle. Armando Bacot had said on Sunday they would have to cut off his right leg to keep him from answering the bell against Kansas, never mind the ankle he sprained against Duke. In his 38th minute of a 15 point, 15 rebound double-double Monday night, with North Carolina down one with 50 seconds left and desperately needing a play, Bacot tried to make one in the lane.
“I thought I really got the angle I wanted. I thought it would have been an easy basket,” he would say later. “I was just trying to drive to the basket and I just kind of unconsciously tried to go off my right foot. And that was the ankle I injured.”
Down he went. The ball — and the game, it turned out — was gone. For North Carolina, an excruciating slip of fate.
Kansas won a game where the Jayhawks were outrebounded 55-35 and outscored in second chance points 28-8, and where All-American Ochai Agbaji went 3-for-8 from the free throw line.
Kansas won a game that was the ultimate all-hands-on-deck, in both white and blue uniforms. There were 10 players — five to a side — who scored between 15 and 11 points. Agbaji, with 12, was tied for the eighth leading scorer of the night, but was named Most Outstanding Player for the Final Four because of his very presence and leadership (not to mention 21 points against Villanova) as much as anything.
And Kansas won a game that went straight to the heart of its coach. Self lost his father in January, but one thing was clear: Bill Self Sr. was in the Caesars Superdome Monday night.
“I talked to him the first half. When we were down six then 10 then 15, I talked to him then. I talked to him at halftime. It’s the one time he didn’t talk back,” Self said. “The biggest thing was, of all the ways you could win a game, this one would make him most proud.”
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The father would be proud not only of how the championship was finally secured, but what it means to the career of his son. Self has had a terrific run at Kansas, already good enough for the Hall of Fame. But the one title from 2008 was starting to look a tad lonely.
“These don’t fall off trees. I mean, they’re hard to get,” he said.
“When they’re the all-time winningest program, and when the inventor of the game (James Naismith) was your first coach, and when the likes of Adolph Rupp comes from Kansas and Dean Smith comes from Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain comes from Kansas, the expectations are such where being good is OK, but it’s not enough.
“Nobody’s ever put pressure on me that we’ve got to win another one, but I think I put pressure on myself knowing that this place deserves more than what we’ve won.”
The second might have come in 2020 when the Jayhawks were No. 1, but COVID wiped out that tournament and that chance. But this team, laden with veterans who have invested much of their young lives in Kansas basketball, had the feel of something special.
“I told my people close to me I don’t think I’ve ever felt this much joy coaching a team as I have this team,” Self said. “No headaches, no issues, no selfishness, no hidden agendas, no side streets.”
And the Jayhawks seemed especially dangerous when pushed. They were down 17 at Kansas State the week his father died and came back to win. They were down six at halftime to Miami in the Elite Eight and positively crushed the Hurricanes 47-15 in the second half.
If only he could have them right for New Orleans. He had seen other Kansas teams not react well in the bright lights. “I don’t think it’s me but I made a conscious effort this time not to let anything show,” he said of his outward calm. He even took a nap Monday. All seemed well.
But what to do when North Carolina took a 40-25 lead into halftime and in Agbaji’s words, “We weren’t playing our game. We were kind of sped up by the moment.” Self thought of his father once more. “I think he was looking down pretty ticked at us.”
But the players weren’t overly concerned. “With the group of guys as experienced as this and been around and know each other so well,” Mitch Lightfoot said, “it’s kind of hard to see us get rattled.”
Self reached back to the past, to the shining moment of his coaching life — until Monday — for an example to give his team. That was 2008, when those Jayhawks rushed past Memphis and won the championship in overtime.
“There wasn’t much inspiration. I did tell them before the half was over which would be harder, being down nine with two minutes to go or being down 15 with 20?” he said. “And they all said being down nine with two minutes left. So we can do this, because that’s the way it was in ’08.”
The Jayhawks then returned to the floor with positive vibes. Note the smile on David McCormack’s face. “He was looking at me and I was like, `why are you smiling dude, we’re down 15?’” Christian Braun said later. “He was telling me, `keep your head up, keep going, we’ll be all right.’ I was like, `man I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before.’”
And then the second half began, and in just over nine minutes, Kansas had pulled even. The Tar Heels had lost their offensive momentum — they shot 27.5 percent the second half and 2-for-12 in 3-pointers — and never really got it back.
“I was thinking about the 14-minute mark, there’s no way these guys can play 20 minutes of defense like that. But they did,” Self said. He also understood what North Carolina had been through only 48 hours earlier with Duke. “I think the game on Saturday night showed up in the second half. I thought when we made our run, they got a little fatigued.”
The Tar Heels didn’t name that as a factor. “It was the national championship. I don’t think anybody was thinking about being tired,” Caleb Love said. But in the end, they needed more than they had — including offense and luck. “It hurts to come this far and come up short like this,” Love said.
The Jayhawks were left to cut down the nets, and savor being unique. “Those goals and dreams that we’re living right now, we never would have thought when we first stepped foot on Kansas,” Agbaji said, especially of longtimers such as McCormack, Lightfoot and himself. But now they’re “leaving here with history in our name.”
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As for coaching championships, Bill Self now stands alone at his school, and only six men anywhere have won more. That is part of the glow from Monday night.
“I thought this would be good,” he said. “And this is a heck of a lot better than I thought it would be.”
That’s what he would tell his father, too.