NEW ORLEANS — As Kansas players glumly trudged off the Superdome floor at halftime on Monday night, down by 15 points, mired in foul trouble and dazed by a powder blue North Carolina hurricane, David McCormack was all smiles.
The Jayhawks’ hulking senior center looked across the locker room, clapped his hands, patted his teammates on the back and told them that they had been there before, rallying from deficits throughout the season, including within the N.C.A.A tournament.
Still, there have been greater than just a few sideways glances that greeted him.
“I used to be like, man, I don’t know if I’ve ever been here before,” his teammate Christian Braun said with fun. “Down 15 within the national championship game? I’ve definitely never been there before.”
By the tip of the night, the Jayhawks had been elsewhere they hadn’t been in quite a while — standing atop a podium at center court, blue confetti at their feet, after being crowned national champions.
The wealthy lore of Kansas basketball, where the last two champions are bathed in divine light — Danny Manning and the Miracles, and Mario Chalmers’s miracle 3-pointer — has company in fulfilled faith after the Jayhawks staged the most important comeback in N.C.A.A. championship game history to beat North Carolina, 72-69, before 69,423 fans.
The Jayhawks, who once trailed by 16 points, fought off one late blow after one other from North Carolina, which left every part — including the contents of Puff Johnson’s stomach — on the court.
Kansas ultimately needed to survive a hail of last-second 3-point attempts, the ultimate one just before the buzzer by Caleb Love, who had rescued North Carolina on two occasions within the tournament, after which the Jayhawks raced onto the court to rejoice with McCormack, Braun and others screaming at their fans.
It was easy to grasp the elation.
The perpetually snakebit Jayhawks, who’ve a lengthy history of N.C.A.A. disappointments — including two years ago once they were ranked No. 1 within the country before the pandemic worn out the tournament — put those regrets behind them. It was fitting, in a way, that they were led by McCormack, whose profession arc has mirrored their uneven tournament fortunes.
The victory was the primary championship for the Jayhawks since 2008, once they scrambled past Memphis in time beyond regulation — sent there by Chalmers’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“It will be special to win, regardless,” said Coach Bill Self, who added that he was overwhelmed and spent. “But to win when your team needed to fight and are available back the way in which they did and show that much grit makes this one off the charts.”
“I believed this may be good,” he continued. “And this can be a heck of loads higher than I believed it might be.”
Self became the primary Kansas coach to win a couple of title, distinguishing himself amongst a few of the game’s most famous leaders, from James Naismith — who’s credited with inventing the sport — to Phog Allen, whom the Allen Fieldhouse is called after, and Larry Brown, who’s the one coach to win each N.C.A.A. and N.B.A. championships.
Whether Kansas will have the ability to defend its crown is less certain. The N.C.A.A.’s glacial judicial process could also be nearing a final verdict in a case stemming from a federal bribery scandal, from which five Level 1 allegations have been levied against Self’s program.
Oklahoma State was barred from this 12 months’s tournament, and Arizona, Louisville and Auburn levied self-imposed bans within the fallout from the identical scandal. None of them were charged with violations as serious as Kansas has been.
Those questions, though, are for one more day.
On Monday night, there was one other scintillating ending to a Final 4 under the Superdome roof — and for the primary time in three years the festivities were backed by a boisterous stadium stuffed with fans. Often this setting has been a blessing for North Carolina, which won here in 1982 when Michael Jordan sank a jumper from the wing, and again in 1993, when Michigan’s Chris Webber called a timeout he didn’t should seal a Tar Heels victory.
The Tar Heels, who survived an epic battle with Duke on Saturday, sending their rival’s coach, Mike Krzyzewski, into retirement, seemed arrange for one more celebration once they bounced back from an early deficit and threatened to run Kansas off the court.
The sophomore point guard R.J. Davis was breaking down the Kansas defense, center Armando Bacot had put McCormack and his backup Mitch Lightfoot in foul trouble, and the Tar Heels had stormed to a 40-25 lead at halftime.
It’s fair to wonder if Kansas has been sticking pins in a voodoo doll the way in which its opponents have been dropping. Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner injured a knee late in an time beyond regulation win over San Diego State and missed the Bluejays’ narrow loss to Kansas. Villanova guard Justin Moore tore his right Achilles’ tendon in the ultimate seconds of a win over Houston, and his defense might need helped against Ochai Agbaji, who hit his first six 3-pointers against the Wildcats of their national semifinal.
Then Bacot tumbled to the ground late in North Carolina’s win over Duke Saturday night and needed to be helped to the bench. He returned somewhat gingerly, but on Sunday proclaimed himself ready. “My status for tomorrow is ‘I’m playing,’” Bacot said, adding, “My right leg would should be cut off for me to not play.”
Bacot played heroically — not quite himself, limping occasionally, but nevertheless going toe-to-toe and chest-to-chest with McCormack, two heavyweights banging one another from the opening tip.
Down the stretch, after Kansas had clawed into the lead, North Carolina was also fighting attrition. Brady Manek was floored by an early elbow to the pinnacle, Love had rolled his ankle and Johnson — after standing in to take a charge — fell to his knees a short time later and vomited on the court.
North Carolina, though, was poised to survive all that.
Davis had roused the Tar Heels back from a 6-point deficit to attract even at 57 when he dished to Johnson, who hit a 3-pointer out of the corner in front of his own bench. And Manek put North Carolina back in front, 69-68, when he tipped in Love’s drive to the basket with 1:41 left.
McCormack answered when he gathered his own rebound and laid the ball in. Then it might be Bacot’s turn. He’d scored 15 points and pulled down 15 rebounds — becoming the primary player to have six double-doubles in a single tournament — and had used his athleticism to thwart McCormack. After he drew McCormack out near the highest of the important thing, Bacot drove to his right, barreling through the lane. But as he neared the basket, Bacot’s tender right ankle gave way. He landed with a thud on the ground, writhing in pain after turning the ball over with 50 seconds left.
Bacot picked himself up and hobbled to the defensive end of the court until officials whistled the play dead so he could leave.
“I believed I actually got the angle I wanted,” Bacot said. “I believed it might have been a simple basket. After which I just rolled my ankle as I used to be going up.”
Without Bacot in the sport, Kansas, nursing a 70-69 lead, went right to McCormack, who muscled his well past Manek to place the Jayhawks ahead, 72-69, with 22 seconds left. He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
North Carolina pushed the ball upcourt and Love missed a 3-pointer, but Davis grabbed the rebound and dished to Johnson, who missed one other trey. Manek grabbed one other rebound — the twenty fourth offensive one for North Carolina — but tossed the ball out of bounds.
Even with that turnover, the Tar Heels got a reprieve when Dajuan Harris caught the inbound pass and stepped just out of bounds for Kansas. North Carolina arrange a play for Manek, but he tripped and wasn’t open. As a substitute the ball went to Love, who had rescued the Tar Heels against U.C.L.A. with a pair of late 3-pointers and made one other that sank Duke on Saturday night.
But this one, harassed and harried, was in need of the mark.
An quick later, the Jayhawks bolted off the bench — this time all of them wearing smiles.