Both teams appeared calm and collected in talking about their respective up-tempo style of play during Friday’s press conferences, but when the national semifinal contest finally tipped shortly before 8 p.m. local time, North Carolina (36-3) was driving a completely different vehicle than its counterpart.
The Tar Heels were unprepared for the initial Jayhawk onslaught, making poor decisions and committing costly turnovers against an aggressive defense, while relapsing back to early season tendencies of not helping to stop dribble penetration on the other end of the court.
“Those are the worst games to lose, the games where you felt like you just didn’t bring it…,” junior forward Marcus Ginyard said. “I never could have imagined this team coming out with this little passion, this little effort. We’ve played some bad first halves – Nicholls State, Clemson – you could go on and find the games where we just didn’t play the way we needed to in the first half and even through the second half. But nothing as bad as this.”
Kansas (36-3) connected on 13 of their first 17 field goals, while North Carolina missed on 13 of their first 17 attempts, as Bill Self’s squad shot out to the 28-point lead only 13 minutes into the contest. The Jayhawks connected on 54.5 percent (18-of-33) of its field goals in the first 20 minutes, nearly double what the Tar Heels posted on the stat sheet (29 percent on 9-of-31), which included a 9-minute, 3-second field goal drought for the boys in Carolina blue.
North Carolina desperately attempted to summon the spirits of archrival Duke, which overcame a 22-point first-half deficit in the 2001 Final Four to topple Maryland, 95-84. The Tar Heels used a late 15-2 spurt to cut Kansas’ lead to 44-27 at the break, and then topped that run with a 17-2 surge to pull within 54-50 at the 11:15 mark.
But that was as close as North Carolina would get for the remainder of the evening. And when Danny Green’s 3-pointer that touched net before somehow popping out prevented the Tar Heels from cutting the deficit to two only a few moments later, the Jayhawks took back control of the momentum to put the game out of reach down the stretch.
“I couldn't have been prouder of my team at that point,” Roy Williams said. “We had a marvelous, marvelous run. But yet their dreams were bigger than this and it hurts a great deal now.”
In the end, Kansas was just too dominant. The Jayhawks outrebounded the nation’s top rebounding team, 42-33. They held the nation’s most efficient offense to a season-low 66 points on 35.8 percent shooting (24-of-67) with a stout defense that limited the Tar Heels’ number of open looks, as evidenced by a 7-18 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“Our whole game plan for them, and this is so simplistic, is four passes, one shot,” Self said. “Four passes, one shot. If we could make them make four passes, that means we've taken them out of transition and there won't be as much rotation rebounding and we have a better chance to hold them to one shot.”
Brandon Rush led all scorers with 25 points, while Darnell Jackson (12), Sherron Collins (11) and Mario Chalmers (11) also scored in double-digits as the Jayhawks connected on 53.1 percent (34-of-64) of their field goals on the night.
Wayne Ellington scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds for North Carolina, and Tyler Hansbrough added 17 points and nine rebounds. Danny Green also contributed 15 points and five rebounds in the losing effort.
And so with North Carolina’s first road loss of the season, the 2007-08 campaign comes to an end. San Antonio was the final destination, but the Tar Heels were hoping for a couple of more nights in Texas before heading back to Chapel Hill.
Regardless of the outcome, however, this team should arrive at home with their heads held high following a phenomenal run that started on Oct. 12 with “Late Night with Roy.”
“It just hurts,” Ellington said. “It just really, really hurts. I mean, we had a successful season. We did a lot of great things this year. We just fell short of one goal.”