Kansas spent the first 20 minutes forcing shots and passes, missing layups and pressing the issue instead of pressing forward.
The next 20 turned into a master class in coaching by Bill Self — with a spicy dash of Remy Martin.
No more big-game letdowns. Self had his elusive second national title.
Grounded by North Carolina in an ugly first half, Kansas tightened up on defense to rev up its transition game and completed the largest comeback in NCAA championship history with a 72-69 win over North Carolina on Monday night.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever had a team flip the script like we have in the NCAA Tournament, whether it be Miami in the Elite Eight or this game,” Self said.
The Jayhawks (34-6) started fast and faded even faster to fall into a 16-point first-half hole. A national-title drought that stretched to 2008 looked like it would extend at least another year.
Not so fast.
Self has shown a knack for making second-half adjustments during a Hall of Fame career and pulled off a whopper on the game’s biggest stage.
After trying to jam the ball into David McCormack in the first half, Self inverted his team’s post play by putting 6-foot-7 guard Christian Braun on the low block. Braun got a couple of early baskets in the post, triggering an early run that gave Kansas renewed life.
With North Carolina big man Armando Bacot away from the rim instead of protecting it, the Jayhawks found more driving lanes to shoot or kick out to the perimeter.
Kansas also got back to what it does best: Run. The Jayhawks got out in transition for layups and early offense during an opening 18-4 run, finding the offensive rhythm that went missing in the first half.
Kansas swarmed Bacot inside after a dominating first half — 12 points and 10 rebounds — as well as shut off driving lanes and tipped passes to put the Tar Heels (29-10) on their heels.
“Things weren’t going our way,” North Carolina’s R.J. Davis said. “The shots we usually make we were missing, coming up short.”
Martin added the spice.
The Pac-12′s leading scorer last season, he left Arizona State after four seasons for a chance to win a national title. Martin had an up-and-down season marred by injuries and his final collegiate game mirrored his whole year.
Forcing the issue in the first half, Martin shot 1 of 5 and had Self yelling at him to pass the ball. The good Martin showed up in the second half, taking the Jayhawks’ already-humming offense to another level.
“In the second half, I just tried to make something happen and shoot the shots with confidence,” said Martin, who scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half and finished 4 of 6 from 3.
Kansas gave North Carolina trouble with some early full-court pressure and point guard Dajuan Harris picked up his defensive intensity on Davis, who had 11 first-half points. Harris helped hold Davis to four second-half points and shut down North Carolina’s point of attack, leading to forced shots by the Tar Heels.
The misses turned into transition opportunities for Kansas, which, in turn, cleared space for McCormack, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
“They were getting a lot of transition buckets, getting a lot of points in the paint,” said North Carolina’s Caleb Love, who had 13 points on 5-of-24 shooting. “They were getting penetration, doing whatever they wanted to do.”
It was quite a turnaround from an ugly first half.
Kansas looked like the crisper team early, North Carolina like it was in a post-beating-Duke funk. It lasted all of four minutes, after which the Tar Heels put the Jayhawks on their heels.
Defensively, North Carolina cut off driving lanes, forcing Kansas’ guards into difficult shots. Even when they got to the rim, the Jayhawks were so rattled they blew open layups, leaving Self shaking his head.
North Carolina’s Leaky Black made Ochai Agbaji see red most of the half, harassing his every step — to the point Kansas wasn’t even looking for its star player until late.
The Jayhawks tried to take advantage of Bacot’s injured right ankle, yet the North Carolina big man held his ground against McCormack in the lane. Kansas’ center had a couple of early baskets, but tried to force the issue several times after that and ended up forcing up difficult shots.
North Carolina’s offense wasn’t exactly crisp, but it was gritty: The Tar Heels had 18 second-chance points on eight offensive rebounds to lead 40-25.
“Down 15 in a national championship game, I definitely have never been there,” said Braun, who had 12 points.
No one had and won. Self pulled the right strings to get it done.