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NEW ORLEANS – Kansas ruined North Carolina’s Big Easy party.
The No. 1 seeded Jayhawks (34-6) made history with the largest comeback in national championship game history – from 16 points down in the first half – for a 72-69 victory in front of 70,000 at the Superdome on Monday night.
Kansas broke a record that had stood since 1963 when Loyola of Chicago came back from a 15-point halftime deficit to beat No. 1 Cincinnati, 60-58, in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a team flip the script like that,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after winning his first national title at Kansas since 2008. “It would be special to win regardless, but to win when your team had to fight and come back the way they did and show that much grit makes this one off the charts.”
North Carolina (29-10) looked like it would win its third national championship in New Orleans and first for a No. 8 seed since Villanova in 1985 as it took a 38-22 lead late in the first half after a 16-0 run. It took a 40-25 lead into the break as some planned trips to Bourbon Street.
But in the Kansas locker room, senior forward David McCormack was smiling.
“I looked at my teammates,” he said. “I laughed. Down 15, I said, ‘We’re built for this.’ Just go out there and have fun. That’s exactly what we did.”
He did not convince everyone, though.
“I was like, why are you smiling, dude? We’re down 15,” Kansas guard Christian Braun said in the locker room. “I was, like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before – down 15 in a national championship game.’ Definitely never been there.”
Kansas was still behind by 45-33 with 16:10 to play, but it would not be denied as it outscored the Tar Heels 47-29 in the second half for its fourth national championship. And North Carolina lost for the first time at the Final Four in New Orleans after five straight wins.
“It hurts for us to get this far and come up short like this,” said North Carolina guard Caleb Love, who took the last three-pointer of the game as promised and could have forced overtime. But he missed it.
“Got the ball, and I took the shot and came up short,” he said.
Kansas appeared dead as the first half ended amid a 15-point deficit, but the Jayhawks looked like a new team as the second half opened. They immediately embarked on a 20-6 run to climb to within 46-45 with 12:42 to play on a layup by Braun, who had missed six of his seven shots in the first half. It was Braun’s sixth point of the second half. finished with 12 points – 10 in the second half.
Then Kansas took a 53-50 lead with 10:21 to play on a three-pointer by guard Remy Martin, who finished with 14 after just a banked-in three-pointer in the first half that he did not call. It was the Jayhawks’ first lead since an 18-16 advantage at the nine-minute mark of the first half.
Kansas surged to a 56-50 lead with 10:08 remaining on a layup by forward Jalen Wilson, who was fouled and made the free throw. Wilson finished with 15 points after scoring four in the first half. David McCormack also scored 15 for Kansas and grabbed 10 rebounds.
McCormack also took over the game late, scoring inside after rebounding his own miss for a 70-69 lead with 1:21 left and hitting another layup with 22 seconds to go for the 72-69 final.
“Game’s on the line. You’ve got adrenaline pumping,” he said. “You’ve got a desire that you’re going to get it. I just prevailed.”
Love, meanwhile, was off all game. He missed 19 of 24 shots including seven of his eight from three-point range after scoring 28 in the win over Duke on Saturday with a key three-pointer late.
“It was the national championship,” he said. “I don’t think anybody was thinking about being tired.”
Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji scored 12 and was named the Most Outstanding Player.
Forward Armando Bacot led North Carolina with 15 points and nine rebounds despite playing on a sprained ankle suffered Saturday. He reinjured the ankle late in the game and did not return.
Kansas led early by 7-0 and 11-5 and still held an 18-14 lead just past the 10-minute mark. After Wilson tipped one in for Kansas for a 22-22 tie with 6:08 to play, the Jayhawks did not score again until Agbaji hit a free throw with 2:11 to go in the half.
In the meantime, North Carolina went on a 16-0 run to take a 38-22 lead just before that free throw. Kansas’ only other field goal of the half was a jumper by Agbaji with 23 seconds to go to get his team within 38-25. North Carolina’s Puff Johnson hit a layup just before the buzzer for the 40-28 lead at the break.
Not one Kansas player was in double figures at the half as Agbaji was its leading scorer with eight points.
But they were all just about to loosen up for a party.
“When you let loose and have fun, the game will come to you,” McCormack said. “Offensively, defensively, whatever you need. That’s exactly what we did.”