March 24, 2012
Thomas Robinson kept missing easy buckets. Tyshawn Taylor had a shooting performance he'd rather soon forget. Kansas made just two shots from outside 5 feet, and seemed to be in constant trouble against North Carolina State.
Yet a smile kept creeping across Robinson's face. Taylor spent most of the second half Friday night trying to calm down coach Bill Self, who was stomping along the Jayhawks' sideline.
"We haven't been a picture-perfect team all season," Self said later, "but that's one thing that's exciting. The guys take pride in not being perfect. They take pride in winning ugly."
They certainly won a muddy brawl against the Wolfpack.
Robinson had 18 points and 15 rebounds, Jeff Withey blocked 10 shots to finish one shy of the NCAA tournament record, and the second-seeded Jayhawks held on for a 60-57 victory. They advanced to play top-seeded North Carolina, led by former coach Roy Williams, which escaped with a 73-65 overtime victory over No. 13 seed Ohio earlier in the night.
All the upstarts have headed home.
It's the bluest of the bluebloods in a Sunday showdown for the Final Four.
"They're a great team, great coach, great program," Robinson said. "It's two great programs and when we do meet, I'm pretty sure it's going to go down as a big one."
It figures to be a little more sexy than their game against the Wolfpack.
Both teams struggled to make shots, run offense and get into a flow. Kansas (30-6) even squandered an eight-point lead in the final few minutes, failing to wrap up the win until Richard Howell's off-balance heave at the buzzer came up well short.
"The guys are tough. They're tough," Self said. "They find a way."
C.J. Leslie had 18 points to lead N.C. State (24-13), despite sitting much of the second half with four fouls. Scott Wood finished with 12 points on 2-for-10 shooting, though his biggest error wasn't a missed shot but the shot he never even got to attempt.
N.C. State had pulled within 58-57 on a transition layup by C.J. Williams with just over a minute remaining. The teams swapped possessions before Kansas managed to get a layup from Elijah Johnson off an inbound pass from Taylor with 13.5 seconds left.
The Wolfpack crossed midcourt and called a timeout to set up a play, which was designed to get the ball to Wood off a baseline pass. Instead, a skip pass went high and the sharpshooter stepped out of bounds trying to pull it in, giving the ball back to Kansas with 5 seconds to go.
Robinson was fouled and missed the free throw at the other end, but a pass down court and Howell's tightly guarded shot at the buzzer came up nowhere close, allowing Kansas to escape.
"We did not execute very well. The end of the day, that's my responsibility," Gottfried said.
Johnson finished with 11 points for the Jayhawks, who moved on despite a lousy performance by Taylor. Their second-leading scorer had six points on 2-for-14 shooting.
Kansas was just 1 for 14 from beyond the arc as a team.
"It gets frustrating, but I can't hang my head and get down. I've just got to be able to do other things to help my team win," said Taylor, who still managed 10 rebounds and five assists.
The Wolfpack took a page from Purdue's playbook over the first eight minutes, using constant double teams on Robinson inside and forcing Kansas to settle for jump shots.
They didn't go in, at least early on.
Just as they did against the Boilermakers last weekend, Kansas struggled to gain traction, and Leslie took advantage by scoring five of his 12 first-half points during an opening salvo.
Williams' 3-pointer gave the Wolfpack a 17-11 lead - their biggest of the half.
Kansas eventually clawed back, relying on defense during a 12-0 run. Withey provided most of it inside with seven blocks in the first half.
"I was just in a zone," he said. "After the first block I just got in a rhythm."
Leslie answered with back-to-back baskets for N.C. State, and his bucket on the heels of a 3-pointer by Wood gave the Wolfpack a 33-32 lead at the break - their last lead of the game.
Johnson, who provided the big shots that allowed Kansas to reach St. Louis, hit his only 3-pointer of the game out of halftime. It was the start of a 12-2 run during which Leslie was forced to the bench with four fouls and nearly 16 minutes still on the clock.
"It was a very physical game. They're very active coming over and helping," he said.
Kansas extended the lead to 50-40 when Taylor lobbed a pass to Withey for an alley-oop dunk, and a partisan crowd inside the Edward Jones Dome roared in approval.
Leslie finally checked back in with less than 7 minutes left, giving N.C. State a brief boost. But moments later he was back on the floor as trainers appeared to work on a cramp, and Kansas pounded away inside before he checked back into the game.
The lead was 58-50 with just over 3 minutes remaining, and Kansas managed to hold on during a furious final stretch to reach another regional final - and earn a date with the Tar Heels.
"We didn't shoot the ball really great. To get the win feels really good," Withey said. "It was all defense, and we're dancing. We're still in the NCAA tournament."