Basketball is cruel sometimes. Basketball, this sport where everything moves so fast, where you can feel untouchable at first and then miserable. That’s exactly what North Carolina went through last night in the NCAA Grand Final against Kansas. With the game in hand with a 15-point lead at the break, Hubert Davis’ men broke down to eventually lose to the Jayhawks 72-69. Cruel we said.
For 20 minutes, North Carolina was like a dream. Finally, earlier 15, Kansas dominated the start of the game as was already the case against Villanova. Perhaps a little disturbed by the challenge of the encounter, the Tar Heels suffered first against the Jayhawks and their pivot David McCormack, scoring 11-5 at five minutes. But then there was a wave of sky-blue color that swept away everything in its path. UNC took control of the game by raising the pitch defensively, throwing themselves at the balls, making the law on the rebound, and imposing their attacking rhythm. From Armando Bacot to Caleb Love via RJ Davis and Brady Manek, North Carolina not only caught up, but widened the gap, especially taking advantage of a McCormack on the bench with two fouls and an Ochai Agbaji discreet and well controlled held by Leaky Black. The score at halftime? 40-25 UNC.
And then beyond that, the nightmare.
If we start putting the champagne in the fridge on the Chapel Hill side, in the second half, the game changed completely. Kansas returns with other intentions and the Tar Heels take the time to leave the locker room. McCormack resumes work he was unable to continue in the first period, while his friend Agbaji becomes increasingly aggressive until he pushes Black to the exit for four fouls. You add in a Christian Braun warming up as UNC struggles to find good shots on offense against the opposite intensity. And just like that† Jayhawks go 25-10 in North Carolina in nine minutes, before taking the lead on a winning shot from sixth man Remy Martin, followed by an and-one from Jalen Wilson. 56-50 Kansas, all momentum is in favor of the Jayhawks and Paul Pierce (former KU resident present in the stands) is already thinking about the party he will organize after the game.
Especially in the beginning the Tar Heels manage to get their heads above water. RJ Davis moves, Caleb Love gives his all despite a sore leg, and Suns player Cam Johnson’s brother – Puff – makes an excellent entrance to help North Carolina come back to score in the final minutes despite the Martin banderillas duo – Wilson. UNC even takes the lead 69-68 sixty seconds from the end on a basket from Manek. But in the money age, the Hubert Davis band has no answer for David McCormack. While Tar Heels inside Armando Bacot, who tied David Robinson for the most double-doubles in an NCAA season (31), re-injured his right ankle (he had already been hit in the semifinals against Duke), McCormack scored two hyperclutch baskets in the paint gives Kansas a 72-69 lead. Meanwhile, Caleb Love is countered in his penetration by little Remy Martin before missing the 3-point equalizer. Puff Johnson also misses as Brady gives Manek a pass…in touch after two offensive rebounds. UNC missed their chance. The Tar Heels get one last chance after a nice gift from their opponent that causes the swell on a throw-in, but Love’s last attempt doesn’t even reach the circle. 72-69 final score. Kansas can cheer, North Carolina can cry.
The Jayhawks are coming back from a 16-point deficit and have just made the biggest comeback in college finals history. Kansas thus won the fourth NCAA title in its history, the second under the Bill Self era, all with Ochai Agbaji named MOP of the Final Four. The Tar Heels will be sorry for a long time to come.