For a one seed, Kansas has had its warts, and all of them were on display in the first half of their 70-58 win over North Carolina. Sloppy passes, stagnant offense, poor execution, the random disappearance of Ben McLemore.
Kansas scored on a Kevin Young follow just over a minute into the game, then went seven minutes until McLemore added two free throws (his only two points of the game). At the under 12 timeout, Kansas trailed 14-6 and had made only two of 14 shots and had turned the ball over four times. Worse, North Carolina, while missing shots of their own, was able to get offensive rebounds and keep scoring opportunities alive.
North Carolina was quick, swarming to the ball when it went inside and often slapped the ball away from Jeff Withey and Kevin Young and there was no room for Kansas to drive inside out of their half court sets. After a first round (I won’t call the play-in round the first round – sorry NCAA) where they didn’t hit a three point shot, the shooting woes continued and all of Kansas’s points came from inside the paint, usually when space opened up on fast breaks. They did enough to take the lead with just over seven minutes left in the half, but North Carolina finished the half on a 14-4 run, taking a 30-21 lead to the break. Travis Releford led KU with nine points.
The KU defense was strong in the first half and the only way they were able to keep the deficit within single digits. The Tar Heels shot just 11-for-42 in the first half. Kansas shot 7-for-28 (and one of those was counted as a goaltend so only six field goals actually went into the hoop).
The second half was a different story. Bill Self was looking for a way to get McLemore involved and the opening play saw him get open for a lob.
He missed the layup. That’s the way his day went. McLemore finished 0-9 and sat through most of the second half.
Nonetheless, Kansas opened with a 7-0 run and held UNC without a basket for three minutes. After a P.J. Hairston three pointer made it 33-28, Withey got a dunk, Releford got a tip in and Kansas was within a point. UNC got a layup, but KU answered with an Elijah Johnson three-pointer and the score was tied at 35.
Kansas started rolling from there. In a 10-3 run, Releford tipped a ball in, then made a spinning move into a jump shot, got fouled, and hit the free throw. Just before the second TV timeout, Naadir Tharpe stole the ball and dished to a trailing Releford. Despite clearly not expecting the ball, Releford got a shot up and made it while getting fouled. Kansas had a 47-38 lead at the timeout.
Releford missed the free throw, but after trading misses, Tharpe brought the ball up then hit a step-back three pointer to extend the Kansas lead.
Kansas’s second half turnaround depended on their defense causing bad shots and on their front line getting rebounds. KU had a 26-22 rebounding edge at the half, but that swelled to a 47-30 edge in the end. After only two turnovers in the first half, UNC turned it over another nine times in the second half.
And Kansas hit shots. They got the Sprint Center crowd back into the game and fed off the Kansas City energy. They made 17-of-27 shots (63%) and 5-of-8 three pointers (their first five of the tournament). All the while, Withey was causing havoc under the basket and even stepped out to block a jump shot late.
Releford led Kansas with 22 points, including 13 in the second half. Withey had seven rebounds, three blocks and 12 points in the second half. All of Tharpe’s 12 points were in the second half (and he finished with 26 minutes, two more than McLemore).
The win gave Bill Self his 300th as Kansas head coach, fittingly against Roy Williams, his predecessor. As in the previous two matchups between UNC’s Williams and Self, Self’s team adjusted to UNC’s gameplan and found their openings.
Kansas will play fourth-seeded Michigan on Friday in Arlington, Texas in a Sweet Sixteen matchup. The time has yet to be announced.