NEW ORLEANS – The tightrope walk rocks on for the Jayhawks.
Kansas, the underrated, undervalued team that’s been teetering on the edge of the tournament since before it even began, is now one of the last two left.
Tyshawn Taylor made two big free throws late, and All-American Thomas Robinson finished with 19 points and eight rebounds Saturday night to lift the Jayhawks to a come-from-behind 64-62 win over Ohio State in the Final Four – a game Kansas led for a grand total of 3 minutes, 48 seconds.
After scoring the game’s first bucket, Kansas didn’t lead again until Travis Releford made two free throws with 2:48 left.
That lasted for 11 seconds, but the Jayhawks (32-6), who trailed by as many as 13, overcame another deficit and finally held on against the Buckeyes (31-8).
“It’s just been our thing all year, coming back,” Robinson said. “I don’t like doing it, but for some reason my team is pretty good when we’re down.”
More than pretty good. Kansas is one more magic act from bringing its second title in five years back to Allen Fieldhouse. It might take exactly that. The opponent is Kentucky, the big-time favorite to win it all, and a 69-61 winner over Louisville in the evening’s first semifinal. The Wildcats are an early 6 1/2-point favorite.
“It’s a dream to play the best team in the country, up ’til now, hands down, the most consistent,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It’s a thrill. And I think it’s even more of a thrill for us, because I don’t think anybody thought we could get here.”
Taylor’s two free throws with 8.3 seconds left gave Kansas a 64-61 lead, matching its biggest of the game.
The Jayhawks intentionally fouled Aaron Craft with 2.9 seconds left.
Craft made the first, then quickly clanked the second one off the front of the rim but was called for a lane violation.
“There is no explanation,” Craft said. “Apparently, I crossed before it hit the rim. I just knew I had to miss it. I thought that would be the best way for us to get the ball back.”
Kansas dribbled out the clock and celebrated a win that played out sort of the way the whole season has in Lawrence.
With most of the experienced players from last year gone, Self at times wondered if this team was even tournament material. The Jayhawks still won the Big 12 title – for the eighth straight time – but came into the tournament as what some felt was an underrated No. 2 seed.
They played down to their billing in their second game, against Purdue, barely escaping with a 63-60 win that looked a lot like this game in the Superdome.
“It was two different games,” Self said of the latest escape act. “They dominated us the first half. We were playing in quicksand it looked like. And the light came on.
“We were able to play through our bigs; we were able to get out and run, but the biggest thing is we got stops.”
This was a heartbreaker for the Buckeyes, who came in as co-Big Ten champions and a slight favorite in a game – a rematch of a 78-67 Kansas win in December when Ohio State’s All-American, Jared Sullinger, was not available.
Sullinger was there a-plenty Saturday night, but he struggled. Sullinger finished with 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting, no fewer than three of them blocked by Jeff Withey, the Kansas center who finished with seven swats.
Sullinger also had 11 rebounds and three blocks, but the sophomore who gave up NBA lottery money to return and win a championship will go without for at least another year.
When the buzzer sounded, he plopped at midcourt, clearly pooped – and maybe wondering how his team let this game slip away.
“These guys got tears in their eyes, blank stares on their faces,” Sullinger said. “It’s tough on me.”