KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They were determined. They were pesky. They were sloppy.
But were they ever competitive.
For the first 20 minutes Sunday afternoon in the Sprint Center, the Tar Heels of the North Carolina men’s basketball team gave the No. 1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks (31-5) all they could handle and then some.
But the Jayhawks righted the ship in the second half and rode the wave of a very pro-Jayhawk crowd to eliminate the Tar Heels 70-58.
“They took us out of everything,” Kansas coach Bill Self said about the Tar Heels’ first-half pressure. “We were so rushed and sped up and played nervous.
“Then second half, we came out and our guys competed. We were great on the glass. Of course, we had to have some individuals step up. Travis (Releford) was terrific and Jeff (Withey) was equally good.”
North Carolina (25-11) was everywhere on the defensive end in the first half. The Tar Heels picked the Jayhawks’ pockets eight times and forced 12 turnovers. UNC also held Kansas to just 25 percent shooting from the floor.
Unfortunately for North Carolina though, it couldn’t connect at a more efficient clip. At halftime, though up by nine points, the Tar Heels had made just 26 percent of their attempts.
“I thought we were both ugly on the offensive end in the first half,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “But we were swarming so much defensively we were able to get some fast-break opportunities, had a nine-point lead at halftime.”
UNC was especially effective in shutting down the Jayhawks’ most prolific scorer – freshman Ben McLemore. Reggie Bullock held McLemore to just two points for the game, and those came at the free throw line.
It was obvious from the start that the Jayhawk guard was out of sorts offensively and ended up missing five shots from the floor, including a couple of wide open layups.
“I drew that match,” Bullock said. “I just tried to be very aggressive on him and limit his touches — get a hand up on all his shots.”
In response to McLemore’s ineffectiveness, Self benched him early in the second half for Naadir Tharpe. The Jayhawks’ offense almost immediately took on new life.
Within the first four minutes of the second half, the Jayhawks had erased the nine-point deficit and in the first bucket after the first media timeout of the second half, Kansas took the lead.
“They came out the aggressor,” P.J. Hairston said about the second-half run. “They came out and started hitting shots, and them hitting shots and getting on a run led to us missing shots and them getting out in transition and getting easy transition points. At the same time, we couldn’t make anything.”
The Tar Heels will watch from Chapel Hill as Kansas moves on to the Sweet 16 in Arlington, Texas. But they have an impressive defensive effort to look back on.
UNC came out with a flourish and had the one seed back on their heels. In the end, a more talented and more experienced team broke through its defensive pressure and advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“I think from an overall effort standpoint, the first half is probably the hardest we played all year,” Marcus Paige said. “Because we know this is a great offensive team, we wanted to come out with the same energy and effort on defense, try to replicate what we did in the first half. We just weren’t able to do it for whatever reason.”
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