KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill Self didn’t have much to say to his team at halftime, not with Kansas playing as poorly as it had all season and North Carolina just 20 minutes away from an NCAA tournament win.
So he walked into the locker room and told his players to talk among themselves.
Senior guard Elijah Johnson remembers asking, “What are we going to do, y’all?” Kevin Young, another senior, quickly replied, “We’re going to play!” And yet another senior, Jeff Withey, spoke up and reminded his teammates that they had “20 minutes or another weekend.”
They chose to play another weekend.
The No. 1 seed in the South Region roared back onto the familiar floor of the Sprint Center and right past the eighth-seeded Tar Heels, overcoming a nine-point deficit in a 70-58 victory that sent Kansas to the round of 16 for the third straight year.
The Jayhawks will play fourth-seeded Michigan on Friday in Arlington, Texas.
“I stepped up and said, ‘This could be our last 20 minutes. Are we going to go out there and leave it on the floor, or let them roll over us like they did in the first half,” recalled Travis Releford, who led the Jayhawks (31-5) with 22 points and eight rebounds.
“Everybody took that in,” Releford said, “and we just came out and played.”
Made plays when they mattered most, just like plucky La Salle.
The No. 13 seed in the West Region upended fourth-seeded Kansas State on Friday night and then got a scooping layup just before the buzzer to beat No. 12 seed Ole Miss 76-74 on Sunday.
The Explorers (24-9) will play ninth-seeded Wichita State on Thursday in Los Angeles.
“What a great win. What a great weekend over here,” said La Salle coach John Giannini, whose team actually started its run by beating Boise State in a First Four game Wednesday night.
“We couldn’t be more proud,” Giannini said. “I know La Salle is proud of these guys. We talk all week about the great La Salle tradition, and when you come in, you want to bring that back, and these guys are doing it right before our eyes.”
La Salle certainly has some tradition, having won a national title back in the ‘50s.
The Jayhawks have a bit of history, too.
The five-time national champions beat the Tar Heels, another program steeped in tradition, in the NCAA tournament for the third time in the past six years. That includes last season, when they beat their former coach Roy Williams and his Tar Heels to reach the Final Four in New Orleans.
“I don’t think it has much to do with Coach Williams or me. I think it has something to do that the three nights we played, we played well,” said Self, who was asked to make sense of the success he’s had against the man he replaced 10 years ago.
“That kind of stuff is blown up way more than it should be,” Self said. “Coaches know players win games and certainly in the games we’ve played, we’ve had our players step up and play great.”
Withey had 16 points and 16 rebounds on Sunday night, helping Kansas outscore North Carolina (25-11) by a staggering 49-28 in the second half. That not only wiped out the Jayhawks’ deficit, it allowed both coaches the opportunity to sub in bench players in the closing seconds.
P.J. Hairston scored 15 points and James Michael McAdoo had 11 for the Tar Heels.
“We lost to another basketball team,” Williams said afterward. “The fact that I coached here for 15 years is extremely important to me, but it doesn’t add anything to today.
“I hurt for my kids in the locker room,” he added quietly. “The NCAA tournament, the swiftness with which your season ends is dramatic, and it hurts everywhere.”
It’s sure to hurt down in Oxford, Miss.
Ole Miss (27-9) was leading La Salle 74-72 with 1:07 left Sunday night when Tyreek Duren made two foul shots to tie the game. At the other end, flamboyant Rebels star Marshall Henderson failed to hit an off-balance bank shot that would have given his team the lead.
The Explorers allowed the final seconds of regulation to melt away, and Tyrone Garland slashed across the lane for a scooping layup with 2 seconds left that gave them an exhilarating victory.
“Time was running out, and I felt like I could get the drive,” said Garland, who couldn’t make a jumper most of the night. “When I cut, I just saw an opening and took the ball up.”
The basket set off a wild celebration on the Sprint Center floor, and allowed La Salle to join another upstart — Florida Gulf Coast, from the South Region — in the round of 16.
“I don’t know how to feel, because I’ve never been here. I could say it’s the greatest feeling, but honestly, I don’t know,” said the Explorers’ Ramon Galloway. “It’s wonderful. It’s just a wonderful story to uplift the La Salle community.”