Basketball is sometimes cruel. Basketball, that sport where everything goes so fast, where you can feel untouchable at first and then miserable. That’s exactly what North Carolina experienced last night in the NCAA Grand Final against Kansas. With the game in hand with a 15-point halftime lead, Hubert Davis’s men broke down to ultimately lose 72-69 to the Jayhawks. Cruel we said.
For 20 minutes, North Carolina was like a dream. Finally more like 15, Kansas dominating the beginning of the game as it happened against Villanova. Perhaps a little unsettled by the challenge of the game, the Tar Heels first suffered against the Jayhawks and their center David McCormack, leading 11-5 in five minutes. But then there was a sky-blue wave that swept away everything in its path. UNC took control of the game by raising the tone on defense, throwing themselves on the balls that were dragging, making law in the rebound and imposing their rhythm in attack. From Armando Bacot to Caleb Love through RJ Davis and Brady Manek, North Carolina not only reached but extended the distance, notably taking advantage of a McCormack on the bench with two fouls and a discreet and well contained Ochai Agbaji by Leaky Black. The marker at halftime? 40-25 UNC.
And then, behind, the nightmare.
As we begin to put the champagne in the refrigerator on the side of Chapel Hill, The match changed completely in the second half. Kansas returns with other intentions and the Tar Heels are slow to leave the locker room. McCormack resumes the work that he could not continue in the first half, while his friend Agbaji is increasingly aggressive until he pushes Black to the exit for four fouls. Add to that a Christian Braun warming up as UNC struggles to find good shots on offense against the opposing intensity. and so, Jayhawks go 25-10 at North Carolina in nine minutes, before taking the lead on a game-winning shot from sixth man Remy Martin followed by a one-and-one from Jalen Wilson. 56-50 Kansas, all the momentum is in the Jayhawks’ favor and Paul Pierce (a former KU resident in the stands) is already thinking about the party he’s throwing after the game.
Certainly, at first, the Tar Heels manage to stick their heads out of the water. RJ Davis moves, Caleb Love gives it his all despite a sore leg, and the brother of Suns player Cam Johnson – Puff – makes a superb tackle to help North Carolina score again in the closing minutes. despite the banderillas of the Martin-Wilson duo. UNC even takes the lead 69-68 with sixty seconds left on a basket by Manek. But in money time, the Hubert Davis gang has no answer against David McCormack. While Tar Heels inside Armando Bacot, who tied David Robinson for the most double-doubles in an NCAA season (31), re-injured his right ankle (he had already been hit in the semifinals against Duke), McCormack hits two hyperactive baskets in the pint giving Kansas a 72-69 lead. Meanwhile, Caleb Love is countered in his drive by little Remy Martin, before missing the three-point tie. Puff Johnson also misses as Brady Manek sends a pass…into touch after two offensive rebounds. UNC missed its chance. The Tar Heels will have one last chance after a nice gift from their opponent who makes the surge on a throw-in, but Love’s last attempt doesn’t even make it to the circle. 72-69 final score. Kansas can rejoice, North Carolina can cry.
Coming back from a 16-point deficit, the Jayhawks just made the biggest comeback in college finals history. Kansas thus won the fourth NCAA title in its history, the second under the Bill Self era, all with Ochai Agbaji named MOP of the Final Four. The Tar Heels are going to be sorry for a long, long, long time.