NCAA Men's Championship Live: A Furious Comeback Delivers Kansas Its Fourth National Title

NEW ORLEANS — Kansas, ranked No. 1 in the country and rolling into the middle of March, had its national championship hopes dashed two years ago by an unbeatable foe — the pandemic, which wiped out the N.C.A.A. tournament.

The perpetually snakebit Jayhawks, who have a lengthy history of N.C.A.A. tournament disappointments, put those regrets and others behind them on Monday night, rallying from a 16-point deficit — the largest comeback in a championship game — to turn back North Carolina, 72-69, before 69,423 fans at the Superdome.

David McCormack, their bullish senior center whose career has mirrored the up-and-down arc of the Jayhawks’ tournament fortunes, scored the go-ahead bucket by following his own miss and then — after Armando Bacot, playing on a gimpy right ankle, injured it on a drive to the basket — scored again in the post to push Kansas’ lead to 3 points.

Kansas then had to survive a pair of 3-pointers by Caleb Love and Puff Johnson — and, after a turnover gave North Carolina one last shot, another by Love, the marksman who had rescued the Tar Heels so often in this tournament, that did not come close.

When the buzzer sounded, the Jayhawks stormed the court, with McCormack running over to shout at the Kansas radio broadcaster as confetti began to tumble down from the roof.

The victory was the first championship for the Jayhawks since 2008, when they scrambled past Memphis in overtime — sent there by Mario Chalmers’s late 3-pointer, a shot that lives among the school’s rich basketball lore. It also marks the fifth consecutive tournament in which a No. 1 seed has won the crown.

The game may have turned on the tender right ankle of Bacot, the North Carolina center, who had to be carried off the court in the semifinal win over Duke and, after slipping while driving to the basket on Monday night with 50 seconds left, writhed on the floor in pain. Bacot picked himself up and hobbled to the defensive end of the court until officials whistled the play dead so he could leave.

Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

It was another sign that the Tar Heels, who were trying to become the first No. 8 seed since Villanova in 1985 to win a championship, gave until they could give no more. Brady Manek, knocked out of the game by a stray elbow from McCormack, returned to deliver 13 points and 13 rebounds. And Johnson, the reserve forward, took a charge that later left him doubled over, vomiting on the court.

But without Bacot in the game, Kansas, nursing a 70-69 lead, went right to McCormack, its 6-foot-10, 250-pound center, who muscled his way past Manek to put the Jayhawks ahead, 72-69.

Bill Self became the first Kansas coach to win more than one title, distinguishing himself among some of the game’s most renowned leaders, from James Naismith — who is credited with inventing the game — to Phog Allen, whom the Allen Fieldhouse is named after, and Larry Brown, who is the only coach to win both N.C.A.A. and N.B.A. championships.

“To win when your team had to fight and come back makes this one off the charts,” Self said. “I thought this one would be good and it’s a lot better than I thought it would be.”

Whether Kansas will be able to defend its crown is less certain. The N.C.A.A.’s glacial judicial process may be nearing a final verdict in a case stemming from a federal bribery scandal, from which five Level 1 allegations have been levied against Self’s program.

Oklahoma State was barred from last year’s tournament and Arizona, Louisville and Auburn levied self-imposed bans in the fallout from the same scandal. None of them were charged with violations as serious as Kansas has been.

Those questions, though, are for another day.

On Monday night, there was another scintillating ending to a Final Four under the Superdome roof. Often that has been a blessing for North Carolina, which won here in 1982 when Michael Jordan sank a jumper from the wing, and again in 1993, when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout he did not have to seal a Tar Heels victory.

The Tar Heels, who survived an epic battle with Duke on Saturday, sending their rival’s coach, Mike Krzyzewski, into retirement, seemed set up for another celebration when they bounced back from an early deficit and threatened to run Kansas off the court. North Carolina bolted to a 38-22 lead with Bacot saddling the Jayhawks’ two primary post players, McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot, with foul trouble.

It is fair to wonder if Kansas has been sticking pins in a voodoo doll the way its opponents have been dropping. Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner injured a knee late in an overtime win over San Diego State and missed the Bluejays’ narrow loss to Kansas. Villanova guard Justin Moore tore his right Achilles’ tendon in the final seconds of a win over Houston, and his defense might have helped against Agbaji, who hit his first six 3-pointers against the Wildcats in their national semifinal.

Then Bacot tumbled to the floor late in North Carolina’s win over Duke Saturday night and had to be helped to the bench. He returned somewhat gingerly, but on Sunday proclaimed himself ready. “My status for tomorrow is ‘I’m playing,’” Bacot said, adding. “My right leg would have to be cut off for me not to play.”

Bacot was immediately put to the test by McCormack. He muscled his way to the rim for a basket and blocked Bacot’s first two shots, then dove to the floor to pounce on a loose ball. Apparently tiring of punishing Bacot, McCormack leveled Manek with a stray elbow — all of this before the game was five minutes old.

Robert Deutsch/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

But Bacot steadied himself and went toe-to-toe, chest-to-chest and chin-to-chin with McCormack, using his athleticism to bother the Kansas big man. Bacot finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, becoming the first player to record six double-doubles in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

About all that went right for Kansas in the latter part of the opening half was Remy Martin banking in a 3-pointer — and then shrugging to the CBS broadcasters as he retreated back on defense. Kansas trudged to the locker room trailing, 40-25.

“Coach obviously challenged us,” Agbaji said. “He was amped up in there.”

The break gave the Jayhawks a chance to gather themselves and they returned with renewed determination on defense. North Carolina missed 9 of 10 shots and Leaky Black, the Tar Heels’ best defender, picked up two quick fouls, his third and fourth, and went to the bench with 13:52 to play. A moment later, Dajuan Harris stripped Davis and delivered a bounce pass on the break that Braun laid in, and the Jayhawks had trimmed their deficit to 1, at 46-45.

When Kansas rallied to take a 56-50 lead, R.J. Davis steadied the Tar Heels with a driving layup and a midrange jumper. He then drew the defense and dished to Johnson, whose 3-pointer from the corner drew the Tar Heels even, 57-57.

But Martin, the diminutive transfer from Arizona State, sank a 3-pointer from the corner to give Kansas a 63-60 lead — one of three triples he made in the second half.

Martin was the lone addition to the Jayhawks rotation from a year ago when they were run off the floor by Southern California in the second round of the tournament — one of six times in the last 12 tournaments that they failed to survive the first weekend of the tournament as a top four seed.

Martin’s arrival raised an interesting question: How would a fifth-year transfer from Arizona State, who led the Pac-12 in scoring as a ball-dominant point guard, fit into an offense built around precise sets and sharp cuts?

“Remy is probably different than anybody I’ve ever coached,” said Self.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

And Self was no stranger to what Martin could do. Martin scored 21 points as a freshman in Arizona State’s win at Allen Fieldhouse — one of 10 home defeats in the last 15 seasons for Kansas. He proved it was more than providence the next season when his pull-up jumper in the final minute helped knock Kansas from its perch as the nation’s top-ranked team.

A knee injury and hiccups acclimating to the Jayhawks offensive structure and defensive demands have made it an uneven season for Martin. But he has found his place as a game-changing sixth man who energizes the offense like a latter-day Vinnie Johnson, aptly nicknamed the Microwave. Martin scored 20 points in the win over Creighton and 23 in the victory over Providence when the Jayhawks needed his offense to survive.

“We didn’t have anybody that you could run bad offense and come away with a basketball, and he’s one of those guys,” Self said.

Kansas need all 14 points it got from Martin off the bench, but there was no shortage of contributors. McCormack had 15 points and 10 rebounds, Jalen Wilson was an unsung contributor with 15 rebounds and Agbaji — named the tournament’s outstanding player — contributed 12 points, along with Christian Braun.

It was enough, barely, to hold off North Carolina, which sent wave after wave of rebounders — grabbing 24 of its own missed shots, including Brady Manek’s tip-in dunk with 1:41 left that put North Carolina ahead, 69-68.

But the Tar Heels — like Bacot’s ankle — could not hold up any longer.

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