By Blake Schuster
If there is one undeniable truth about the 2012 NCAA Tournament it’s never count the Kansas Jayhawks out. Not when they’re in foul trouble, not when they’re down by double digits, and not when Bill Self is coaching.
A 64-62 victory over Ohio State in the Final Four proved that.
The game started out all too familiar as Kansas trailed 26-13 with six minutes left in the first half. The Jayhawks had gotten into dogfights with every team during their tournament run, and the Buckeyes were no exception. Wild shooting, turnovers, and missed opportunities led to a large Kansas deficit highlighted most by a Jeff Withey miscue late in the first.
With the ball in the low post, Withey went to dribble and lost the handle to Aaron Craft who dribbled up the court and dished it off to Deshaun Thomas who easily laid it in to put the Buckeyes up by 13 with just over five minutes left.
“I thought I had a spin, but as soon as I put it down, he got it,” Withey said of the Craft steal. “I tried diving after it, but I didn’t get to it. It was a pretty frustrating play.”
Kansas would spend the rest of the half chipping away at the Ohio State lead but it seemed as though the Jayhawks were stuck running in the same place.
“That’s a four‑point swing,” Bill Self said. “We had several of those the first half. We just couldn’t catch a break.”
Finally, with 23 seconds left in the first, Tyshawn Taylor hit two free throws to bring the deficit to 11. On the ensuing play Withey got his revenge on Craft, blocking his shot to Thomas Robinson who gave it up to Taylor to take up the court with time winding down. With three seconds left Taylor caught a streaking Travis Releford with a pass that he laid up and in as the red light went off. The lead was cut to nine and suddenly Kansas had some momentum, but it wouldn’t stay if the Jayhawks played the second half anything like the first.
Kansas went 11-30 from the field with nine turnovers, and were only able to convert one shot from behind the arc. Conversely, Ohio State seemed as though they were doing everything right. The Buckeyes shot 46% from the field — 50% from behind the arc — and were spreading the Kansas defense thin, allowing Thomas, Jared Sullinger, and Russ Smith Jr. to guide the team with seven points each.
But as Self is known to do, the Jayhawks came out in the second half appearing as if the game belonging to them — and playing like it.
Kansas opened up on a 13-4 run to tie the game at 38 six minutes into the second half. A revamped Withey tallied five blocks, Robinson shot 50%, and Travis Releford went 2-2 from the field and made all four of his free throws — two of which gave Kansas a 60-59 lead with a 1:37 remaining in the game.
“Coach said our guys were hanging in back once we got the rebound, so we weren’t able to push the ball,” Tyshawn Taylor recalled of Self’s halftime speech. “He told me to tell everybody to go and for me to stay back and get the ball. I think our first six points in the second half were all on layups because we just got out and ran.”
After Releford’s free throws, Withey blocked a shot from William Buford to Elijah Johnson who sprinted down for an easy layup. After Buford responded to that play with a dunk of his own, Taylor was fouled on the inbound pass and stepped to the line with a chance to put the Jayhawks up by three.
The senior captain hit both, and wasn’t done working. He stripped Craft of the ball on the following inbound with two seconds left — and even though he threw the ball out of bounds — sealed the victory for Kansas.
“The steal he got after he made his free throws were huge,” Self said. “Then, of course, he passed it to me on the sideline, which wasn’t smart. But he was big.”
And so it comes down to Kansas and Kentucky on Monday night for the chance to hang a banner in either Rupp Arena or Allen Fieldhouse. Two programs who have defined college basketball over the years fighting for a chance to sit atop them all.
“This game took a lot of energy, there’s no question,” Self said. “Kentucky had to play for 40 minutes today, too. Our second‑half performance, if we could play both halves, it’s still good enough to get beat. We got to play a lot better than that playing a terrific team. It’s pretty cool to having the winningest program of all time and the second winningest program of all time hooking up on Monday night.”