Feels like ’88
Kansas and North Carolina played a beautiful half of basketball on Sunday night in St. Louis. They ran up and down and traded shot for shot. Thomas Robinson showed his strength, Harrison Barnes showed his feathery touch, Tyler Zeller would have made George Mikan proud and Tyshawn Taylor found his shot again.
CBSSports.com’s Brett McMurphy told me a story at halftime about the 1988 championship game when Kansas and Oklahoma also played a beautiful half of basketball much like the one we had just witnessed.
All week before that game Larry Brown told his players that they couldn’t run with Oklahoma. They could not win that way. They needed to slow the game down and make them play KU’s style.
As the Jayhawks huddled together in the tunnel before they took the court, Milt Newton, the player who might have been the most athletic guy on the court that night, told his teammates: “F#*% that, let’s run with these guys.”
And much like the Jayhawks ran with the Heels on Sunday, playing to a 47-all tie, the ’88 Jayhawks ran with the top-ranked Sooners and played to a 50-all tie.
At halftime, Brown told his team, “OK, you proved you can run with them. Now we play our game.”
That’s exactly what Kansas did that April 4, 1988 night. They outscored OU 33-29 in the second half, and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tourney history. KU’s 80-67 win on Sunday would not quite rank with that upset, but the odds that this team would be headed to the Final Four was just as an unlikely story.
Bill Self said on Saturday that he didn’t want to get in a scoring contest with Carolina.
Who could blame him? After all, that’s not who these Jayhawks were. They’re gritty. When they’re at their best, they’re defensive-minded, coming back against Missouri by not letting the Tigers score. But they’re also stubborn.
They didn’t have a Milt Newton-like moment in the pregame huddle, but once Taylor’s jumper dropped two minutes in, the lid that had been on the basket Friday night was off. And the Jayhawks, loose as they had been all tournament, were ready to score with the Heels.
“We were just matching each other’s shots,” Elijah Johnson said. “It felt like a street ball game or an All-Star AAU game. That was just to get the jitters out, letting everybody know ‘we’re here.’”
Self spent those early defensive possessions in a defensive stance, trying to will his guys to get stops before they fell into what he considered the Carolina trap: trading baskets.
Self joked after the game that one of KU’s points of emphasis was to keep Carolina off the offensive glass. His team outsmarted him in the first half, he said, because it’s hard to give up an offensive rebound if the other team doesn’t miss.
But at halftime, the Jayhawks realized it was time to play Self’s way. “We wanted to make them feel us every play and not let them get comfortable,” Robinson said.
After allowing Barnes to catch inside the lane and Zeller to pin them in close, which resulted in 26 points in the paint in the first half, the Jayhawks pushed the Heels out after halftime.
“It fell back to your system, your program, knowing what you’re supposed to do,” Johnson said.
Kansas played Bill Self defense, contesting every shot and making the Heels settle instead of taking what they want.
Then, just to give the Heels even more to think about, Self went to the triangle-and-two with 11 minutes left. Roy Williams said afterward that he thought KU ran the triangle-and-two maybe one or two possession. They ran it 17 possessions, and the Heels made two shots the rest of the game and scored six points.
“We put their players who are not used to scoring in positions to score, and it kind of confused them a little bit,” Taylor said.
Carolina’s 20 second-half points was the lowest point total in a half UNC has ever scored in Williams’ nine seasons as head coach. Williams has never liked to prepare his teams for what the other team’s going to do; rather, he wants to play his style and make you stop it. Self, always willing to adapt, had the solution.
In the tight quarters of KU’s locker room, Elijah Johnson was surrounded by cameras and reporters. Johnson dutifully answered questions for several minutes, and then he stopped. He leaned forward, the silence only filled by Tyshawn Taylor next to him. Johnson leaned back, put his head against a locker and finally spoke.
“I’m at a loss for words right now,” he said. “This is crazy. It’s crazy because we try not to think ahead of time, so I never really thought about the Final Four. As much as people think about it, I definitely can say I never thought about it. It just happened so fast. I feel like it’s just jump ball. I feel like Henson just won that jump ball. It just happened so fast.”
Time has had no influence on Elijah Johnson in this NCAA tournament. Once Kansas finally pulled within one point of Purdue in the final minutes of the second round, it was Johnson who took biggest shot of the tournament for KU, a deep 3-pointer to give his team its first lead. It was Johnson who bailed out Taylor in the final minutes against NC State, realizing the seconds were ticking close to five and darting to the basket for a layup that KU desperately needed. And it was Johnson who took the shot that made the Heels weak in the knees, a 3-pointer that put KU ahead by four — the start of a game-ending 12-0 run.
“I was so into the game, I had the shot, I took it,” he said. “I didn’t pay attention to the score. I didn’t look at the score until I was running down the court, and I saw that it put us up four, which made it a two-possession game.
“I could have missed that three and they came down and scored, and we would have been down one. But I wasn’t conscious of that. Since I wasn’t conscious of that, it made that shot feel more free, and I let it ride.”
Johnson, some would say, hasn’t been conscious all year. Even though his 3-pointer percentage hovered in the 20s, he kept taking shots. Finally, they started falling, and it’s a good thing; because without Johnson, the Jayhawks would have never had a chance to even play North Carolina.
The 1986 Jayhawks were the team loaded with talent, destined to win a National Championship. Not the ’88 team.
The 2010 Jayhawks and the 2011 Jayhawks were supposed to make the Final Four. Not this team. Not the team that Self hoped would knock off Ohio State in December just so they would have a good win on their résumé and eventually make the tournament.
The Jayhawks got that win, but then nine days later they lost to Davidson. “No chemistry whatsoever,” Self said. “I mean just bad.”
Taylor was coming off knee surgery, Johnson was beginning a 10 for 41 shooting slump from distance and Robinson was refusing to pass out of double teams. “But the guys kind of woke up once conference play started,” Self said. “This team has played as close to a ceiling as it possible could.”
On Sunday night, Larry Brown was behind the bench where Danny Manning sat, and somewhere one of the Miracles, Milt Newton, watched on TV.
Could the Jayhawks run with the Heels? Newton probably believed they could. And at halftime, Brown probably thought, “OK, it’s time to play Coach Self’s way.”
The Jayhawks did, and now their season continues.
“We’ve still got practice,” Johnson said. “We’ve got practice tomorrow. I can’t wait to go to practice tomorrow. I can’t wait. We’re going to New Orleans, man.”