One of my favorite scenes last night was Larry Brown going around the entire #KUbball locker room high-fiving each player during interviews.
Taylor won a mythical national title at St. Anthony in 2008 and he’s now one win from winning a college title, too.
“I mean, that’s huge,” Taylor said. “Man, I don’t know how many guys can actually say that. I was talking to Coach [Bob] Hurley the other day and he told me of all his college players that he’s gotten to college, I was the third one to make it to the Final Four. Bobby [Hurley], Rodrick Rhodes and myself, so a huge accomplishment, man.
“I’m just going to try to bring this thing back to Jersey, baby, let’s go.”
Appropriately, Taylor, a St. Anthony player, will face Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a St. Patrick player, in the final.
St. Anthony and. St. Patrick have been the two most dominant teams in New Jersey — and among the best in the nation — for the last quarter century.
Though Taylor is three years older than Kidd-Gilchrist, the respect is mutual.
“Got a lot of respect for Mike,” Taylor said. “Me and him were talking at the banquet the other day, man, and I told him that I would see him on Monday and we both here.
“So somebody’s taking it back to Jersey. I hope it’s me, man.”
Those first two October weeks before the start of basketball practice are the days the Kansas Jayhawks have come to dread. “Boot Camp,” their coaches say in a vague description of 5 a.m. wakeups, two hours of running and conditioning and practicing defensive drills without a ball.
“Hell Camp,” many of the players call it.
But when trying to understand how the Jayhawks can explode into second halves, running past baffled opponents the way they did the Ohio State Buckeyes 64-62 in the Final Four on Saturday, the best place to begin is Boot Camp. For this is where the resilience grows, where the stout defensive stands are born and the confidence that any deficit can be erased is manufactured.
…Saturday the Jayhawks did something to Ohio State that many didn’t imagine possible. It broke the Buckeyes, turning the team of Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft into a baffled mass of red-clad players shaking weary heads and waving their arms in confounded resignation. A once mighty 13-point OSU lead withered away, then disappeared for good in the final moments. But you could see the collapse coming for several minutes before it eventually did.
The Ohio State players seemed unsure what to make of what was happening to them as they plodded down the floor in a fruitless pursuit of the Jayhawks who buried them in an avalanche of layups.
…Boot Camp, the Kansas players said.
“I think it’s one of those things where guys say, ‘I made it through Boot Camp, we’re able to handle anything,’ ” Townsend said as he stood in the Jayhawks locker room.
What else to explain the way Kansas has advanced to this national title game against Kentucky, coming back from 13-points down to Ohio State just as they did when they trailed Missouri by 19 or were down 12 to Iowa State. Something keeps happening. Opponents panic. They force shots. They argue with each other. They can’t prevent what’s coming. By the end Saturday night, Ohio State looked beaten and worn.
…There’s a toughness to Self’s teams people don’t recognize. His hair is never mussed, his expressions are often serene, his suits perfect. He does not have one of those scratchy coach voices, worn hard from so much screaming. It’s easy to see him as soft with his players. His tone is not hard. It’s a quiet toughness; a will that pushes his teams in ways others don’t expect.
Self always has these expressions, the kinds of things that sound quaint when uttered in his Oklahoma drawl. “Tight huddle” is one, which has nothing to do with actual huddles on the sideline during games. Rather, it means players must learn to work together on defense in a virtual “huddle.” Another favorite is, “You’ve got to pull the rope the same way.”
Perhaps outside the Kansas locker room they sound silly, almost old fashioned. But to the players they work, enough at least, to get them to get them through one more game of this tournament and Kentucky.
On Saturday night he decided early in the second half to have his players double-team Ohio State’s star forward Sullinger, and Sullinger reacted awkwardly, losing the ball, throwing up wild shots and becoming almost irrelevant offensively. Later, Sullinger would say he didn’t expect Kansas to double-team him. The hands that slapped at the ball came from nowhere and rattled him.
Perhaps he didn’t imagine Kansas center Jeff Withey could fly through the air to block seven Ohio State shots. Nor maybe did he see the Jayhawks run as fast as they did in the second half when the missed shots and turnovers turned into a series of layups.
As Taylor stepped to the free-throw line against Ohio State with 8.3 seconds left, Kansas was nursing a one-point lead. Twice this season -- against Kansas State and Missouri -- Taylor fell short at the charity stripe in the waning seconds.
Not on Saturday.
Taylor calmly stepped to the line and knocked down both free throws, giving Kansas a 64-62 win in the Final Four.
"I went up to the line, knowing I was going to make it," Taylor said.
…While Thomas Robinson got most of the attention for the Jayhawks, it was Taylor bringing it on a consistent basis that transformed Kansas from a second-tier contender to a team that is one win away from a national championship. It's not the same Taylor from last season.
"When Ty leads us, we can't be beat," junior forward Kevin Young said. "He's an amazing guard. When he talks to us, he's an extension of coach. He's learned how to be more of a leader. A lot of players can't be talked to the same way, and he's learned that. Each of us has our own way."
Aaron Craft frustrated Taylor to no end in the first half, forcing him into turnovers and forced shots. Taylor only finished 3-for-11 from the field, but that didn't stop him from making plays on the offensive end. He still managed to dish out nine assists and ran the Kansas offense effectively down the stretch.
The old Taylor might have continued to force shots; this one can be trusted to make the smart play at the right time.
"In game-time situations, I don't get shaken up," Taylor said. "I stay calm, cool and collected. I might get sped up, but I keep my head."
Townsend said that Taylor controlled the game in the second half better than Craft, at both ends of the floor. He didn't let Craft initiate the Ohio State offense on a consistent basis late in the game, forcing the Buckeyes into several bad possessions during Kansas' comeback.
When it came time for Taylor to make free throws in the final seconds, his teammates weren't concerned about his previous problems in the clutch. They knew they could count on the senior from New Jersey.
"He's matured a ton. He's been so huge for us," senior Conner Teahan. "Throughout the season, it's been free throws. But he learned a lot from the situations he's been in. He's done a great job."
Jeff Withey destroyed Jared Sullinger on Saturday night, destroyed him in every way one player can destroy another. On the other hand, Jeff Withey probably did Sullinger a favor. Because if Withey can reduce Sullinger to a puddle of pouting goo, imagine what Kentucky's Anthony Davis would have done to Sullinger on Monday night.
Ah well, we don't have to worry about that. Withey took care of Sullinger, and because he took care of Sullinger in such destructive fashion, Kansas took care of Ohio State, winning their national semifinal 64-62 to set up a date with Kentucky for the title.
Withey scored only four points and had four turnovers, but his fingerprints were all over this victory for Kansas. Kind of like his fingerprints were all over Sullinger's shots, not to mention shots by a few other Buckeyes. When all was said and done, Withey had set a national semifinal record with seven blocked shots -- bettering the record of another Jayhawk, Danny Manning, who had six in 1988 against Duke -- and had affected a good many more.
"I was just in the right place at the right time," Withey said, fooling himself maybe but nobody else. Because when all was said and done, Jeff Withey had been the single biggest factor in the Jayhawks' victory.
Just before halftime of Saturday's national semifinal game against Ohio State, Withey blocked an Aaron Craft shot, which sparked a fast break that ended with a Travis Releford layup at the buzzer.
Instead of the Jayhawks entering their locker room down 11, they were within single-digits and had a bit of momentum. Kansas coach Bill Self called the block "a big, big play."
"My teammates definitely look at me and see me as a rim protector, so they know if they get beat, I'm there," Withey said. "That's why I'm there."
Lately, though, Withey's been more than just a security blanket for his teammates. He has blocked 27 shots in five NCAA tournament games - four more than national player of the year and shot-blocking extraordinaire Anthony Davis of Kentucky.
He swatted away seven shots in Saturday's game, which set a national semifinal record. During one stretch of the game, he blocked three consecutive shot attempts by the Buckeyes' All-American Jared Sullinger.
With his team having rallied from a 13-point deficit, to reclaim the lead with less than three minutes remaining, Jeff Withey believed for a brief moment he'd just sealed a victory. With 27 seconds remaining in Kansas' national semifinal matchup with Ohio State, the 7-footer caught a pass in the lane, strode forward and finished an easy lay-up that would put his team up by at least a five-point margin. The Jayhawks' contingent of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd went nuts and a whistle blew, indicating a possible and-one. He roared with satisfaction.
And then everyone's mood changed when the ref signaled traveling.
"That was a swing of emotions," he said. "I didn't think it was a walk."
Withey would have cause to celebrate soon enough, however. Despite trailing nearly the entire game, despite subpar shooting nights from its two biggest stars, Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, and despite blowing two last-second chances to ice things on a pair of turnovers, Kansas held on to beat the No. 2 seeded Buckeyes, 64-62, and no Jayhawk proved more important than their shot-blocking specialist.
"Anthony Davis is the best shot-blocker in the country," Kansas coach Bill Self said of the Kentucky All-American his team will now face Monday night. "But Jeff is probably second best. So you're going to have two great shot-blockers going against each other."
Suddenly, we began to wonder if Kentucky's season would actually end with the national championship on Monday night.
Kentucky couldn't quite pull away. The Wildcats clearly had superior talent. But they didn't really put the Cardinals to bed until the final minutes. Louisville was down by six points with 1:41 to play.
The Cardinals made the Kentucky matchup far more interesting than most assumed it would be.
Yes, Anthony Davis & Co. celebrated as though they were about to cut down the nets. But in reality, the Cardinals, their rivals, had put a crack in the glass shell of invincibility that seemed to surround the program all season.
And they didn't even belong in New Orleans. They finished seventh in the Big East. The Cardinals were plagued by injuries. But they managed to reach the Final Four.
They did not, however, just allow the Wildcats to walk over them on their way to a possible national title.
But the Wildcats were brilliant in stretches. Davis had a Wilt Chamberlain-like performance (18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist struggled with early foul trouble, but a second-half spin move dazzled the crowd. He helped the Wildcats stay ahead with late dunks. Veteran Darius Miller helped his young teammates stay calm against the pressure dictated by Louisville and the stage.
They gave us drama.
We needed that.
And we didn't mind the additional theatrics that Kansas and Ohio State produced in the second game.
I said that word about a dozen times during Kansas' wild comeback in the second half. The Jayhawks had lost that game.
But the Jayhawks have been a defensive juggernaut after halftime throughout the NCAA tournament. In their past four games, they've given up just 24.0 ppg, a 24.2 field goal percentage and 18.4 percent clip from beyond the arc after halftime, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Jeff Withey blocked seven shots, including a late layup by William Buford.
The Jayhawks opened the second half on a 13-4 run.
You could see a change in Ohio State's body language. The Buckeyes looked uncomfortable for the first time in the game.
ESPN Myron Medcalf
Hours after Kansas came back to beat Ohio State and earn a spot in Monday's national championship game, Covers.com has Kentucky as a 6.5-point favorite over Kansas.
In so far as anyone can match up with Kentucky -- and really, no one can -- Self's team actually matches up pretty well. Withey isn't nearly as mobile as Davis (obviously), and it's hard to figure who will guard Kidd-Gilchrist or how a good-but-not-great offense will find its buckets against a still very good Kentucky defense. But in terms of sheer strength-on-strength matchups -- Kentucky's strength is offense, Kansas' defense -- Self's team isn't that far off the mark.
The Kansas Jayhawks rallied once again with another late-game surge to survive and advance in this year’s NCAA tournament. This time Kansas ended the game on an 8-3 run to complete a 64-62 victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The Jayhawks scored the final six points of the game versus Purdue in the round of 32 to secure a 63-60 victory; against North Carolina in the Elite Eight, Kansas finished with a 12-0 run en route to an 80-67 win.
Kansas will be playing in its ninth national championship game and first since winning it all in 2008. This is the Jayhawks' fifth title game in the last 25 seasons, the second most during that span behind Duke’s six appearances.
Once you get past the basketball royalty and the titles and the class and the fans and wins going into Monday night, Kentucky is just better. This is their team. This is their destiny. At this point, an elephant gun might not be enough to take out the Wildcats. Their fans have taken over the city. Their team took over the country. You know things are going right when Jay-Z is sitting in the first row in one of the Kentucky cheering sections. Ninety-nine problems? Winning the national championship ain't one.
"Are they beatable?" Pitino said. "No question about it because Vanderbilt [in the SEC tournament] did it. But you're going to have to play great offense, great offense and you gotta bring an A-plus game and they're going to have to have a B game."
Good luck with all that, KU.
Let's get this straight. Kentucky won Saturday with what was probably one of those B efforts. Kansas? It needed a stirring comeback against Ohio State which, let's face it, choked a bit. Monday's matchups already look mismatched.
Kansas' best chance may be that Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist miss the team bus
Kansas escaped yet again with a victory in the NCAA tournament, this time coming from 13 down against Ohio State. It's been a pattern for this team, one based on resiliency and mental toughness. There was the fortunate win against Purdue in the third round, the three-point squeaker over N.C. State in the Sweet 16 and a victory over a Kendall Marshall-less North Carolina team that was far closer than the final score indicated.
But Self won't have enough bullets to go up against this Calipari team.
He's got a group that's forced to go with a pair of former walk-ons in Teahan and Justin Wesley as two of his top reserves off the bench.
"I never saw this coming," Kansas star Thomas Robinson admitted after the 64-62 win on Saturday night. "I never thought last June that we'd end up in the championship game."
No one did.
That was after the Morris Twins -- Marcus and Markieff -- along with Josh Selby all bolted. Starters Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed both graduated. Then three incoming freshmen were deemed ineligible -- including projected starter Ben McLemore.
"We flew under the radar all year," Self admitted.
"We knew we had some problems," Kansas assistant Joe Dooley added.
The Jayhawks will go into Monday night's contest as the heavy underdogs, especially after Kentucky overwhelmed Kansas in the second half back in November at Madison Square Garden. In that game, Kansas star Thomas Robinson was visibly frustrated after the loss, seeing constant double-teams for the first time in his college career.
Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor has been playing as well as any floor leader in the country over the last couple months and Robinson finished a close second to Davis for National Player of the Year honors, but Kentucky is a completely different team as well. They had four freshmen all playing in their second career games and still won by double-figures.
"They already cleaned our clock once," Self said.
Calipari has been waiting for this for four years. Revenge against Self. He may not admit it, but there have likely been more than a few nightmares of his team not fouling before the Chalmers dagger. He's been regarded as the elite recruiter, but has been questioned as an X's and O's guy, largely because of his inability to hang a banner.
He'll get another opportunity -- and this time it won't be a fair fight. Self will be bringing a steak knife to a sword fight while Calipari wields a machete.
"We know they have a lot more talent," Teahan said. "But talent doesn't always win games."
That Anthony Davis found himself with the ball as the final seconds ticked off Kentucky's 69-61 victory over Louisville seemed fitting because the current National Player of the Year and future No. 1 pick of the NBA Draft is the main reason the Wildcats lived to dribble another day.
He got 18 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in 39 minutes.
Then he got the ball in the final seconds, held it till the buzzer sounded and tossed it into the air, at which point he started yelling one of three things to the announced crowd of 73,361 here at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. I thought he yelled "This is my sh-t!" Others thought he yelled "This is my state!" But Davis swore late Saturday that the words were actually "This is my stage!" So now everybody is confused.
"I said 'This is my stage,'" Davis told the assembled media with a smile. "We're from Kentucky. We're built for this."
"Did you say that?" asked UK coach John Calipari.
"Yeah," Davis confirmed.
"Don't ask him a follow-up," Calipari said. "He doesn't know why he was saying that."
Kentucky teammates Darius Miller and Marquis Teague were laughing pretty hard while this exchange happened. Davis was, too. Which makes me think he just didn't want to admit on live national television that he was yelling "This is my sh-t!" But whatever. Does it even matter? Because regardless of what Davis actually said -- state, stage or sh-t -- the truth is that any of the three work and seem appropriate.