ST. LOUIS — Back in December, Kansas was scuffling along at 7-3, and making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t considered a lock.
Look where the overachievers are headed now.
Kansas is on its way to the Final Four for the first time since winning it all in 2008, thanks to a clutch performance by Tyshawn Taylor, some stifling defense and the Jayhawks’ unshakable belief that they were better than anyone gave them credit for.
Taylor broke out of his slump with 22 points, and the Jayhawks handcuffed top-seeded North Carolina for the last five minutes of an 80-67 victory over former Kansas coach Roy Williams and his Tar Heels in the Midwest Region final on Sunday.
“This would have been a year, if we got to the second weekend (of the tournament), most Kansas fans would be happy. But that’s not how those guys think,” coach Bill Self said. “They think this is their year, and I’m certainly not going to tell them anything different.”
The second-seeded Jayhawks (31-6) play Ohio State in the national semifinals Saturday at New Orleans.
As the game ended, Taylor — much maligned for his shooting struggles during the first three games of the NCAA Tournament — ran to Kansas fans and raised both arms in the air. Travis Releford tossed his sweatbands into the crowd.
“This is what you come to Kansas for,” Taylor said. “It’s a great feeling, but it’s just one step.”
Taylor led all five Jayhawks starters in double figures. Player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson added 18 points and nine rebounds, and Elijah Johnson, a Cheyenne High School product, kept up his blistering pace in the tournament with 10 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:07 to play that sparked Kansas’ game-ending 12-0 run. Jeff Withey made two monster blocks to deny the Tar Heels during the final run — including one that set up a key three-point play by Taylor.
After Withey swatted away a shot by John Henson, Taylor came up with the rebound and streaked downcourt for a layup, getting fouled by Stilman White in the process. As the Jayhawks fans roared, Taylor butted his head into Robinson’s chest, then made the free throw to give Kansas a 74-67 lead with 1:59 left.
Withey blocked White’s shot on the other end, and the Tar Heels never threatened again.
“There’s no way to put into words the way we feel,” Williams said. “There’s no way to put into words the way I feel. … It’s the NCAA Tournament. One team wins and one team loses, and that’s what we have to understand.”
James Michael McAdoo scored 15 for the Tar Heels (32-6), who played better in their second game without injured point guard Kendall Marshall. But North Carolina didn’t make a field goal over the final 5:46.
It was only the third defeat in 12 regional final appearances for the Tar Heels, but their second straight after losing to Kentucky last year.
“It was a game of runs,” Williams said. “And we didn’t answer the last one.”
Harrison Barnes finished with 13 points and four assists, but also had three turnovers. Tyler Zeller had 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks in his final game.
“We had an opportunity to win that game, and we didn’t come through,” Barnes said. “I missed a lot of shots I usually make. Big-time players come through in big-time games, and it just wasn’t there tonight.”
This was only the second time Williams faced Kansas since leaving the school in 2003. Though Jayhawks fans have softened some, Williams was still greeted with a chorus of boos, and one fan held up a sign that said, “Roy Down, 2 to Go.”
At least this one went better than the first meeting, at the 2008 Final Four, where the Jayhawks walloped North Carolina on the way to winning the title Williams never could at Kansas.
Unlike Friday, when the Tar Heels turned the ball over a season-high 24 times and looked surprisingly disheveled against 13th-seeded Ohio without Marshall, they had things back under control Sunday.
White, a freshman, had seven assists, giving him 13 for the two games without a single turnover, and North Carolina shot almost 64 percent in the first half.
But the Jayhawks cranked up the pressure defensively in the second half, and North Carolina buckled. The Tar Heels shot just 7 of 31 after halftime and had six turnovers.
Zeller pulled the Tar Heels within two on a putback, and Barnes hit the first of two free throws to cut Kansas’ lead to 68-67 with 3:58 to play. But Johnson, shooting almost 52 percent in the tournament, drained a 3-pointer from NBA range to start the decisive game-ending run.
“It was a shot I was comfortable taking,” Johnson said. “He took a step backward, and I made him pay for it.”KANSAS 80
NORTH CAROLINA 67
■ KEY: Tyshawn Taylor broke out of a scoring slump with 22 points as the second-seeded Jayhawks reached the Final Four for the first time since 2008.
No. 2 KANSAS (31-6)
vs. No. 2 OHIO STATE (31-7)
Time/TV: 5:49 p.m. Saturday, CBS (8)
Line: Ohio State -2 1/2 Total: 136 1/2