NEW ORLEANS – Same story, new night for Kansas. The team that's been teetering on the edge of the tournament since before it even began is now one of the last two left.
Tyshawn Taylor made two big free throws late, and Thomas Robinson finished with 19 points and eight rebounds Saturday night to lift the Jayhawks to a come-from-behind 64-62 win over Ohio State in the Final Four — a game Kansas led for a grand total of 3 minutes, 48 seconds.
After scoring the first bucket, Kansas didn't lead again until Travis Releford made two free throws with 2:48 left. That lasted for 11 seconds, but the Jayhawks (32-6), who trailed by as many as 13, overcame another deficit and finally held on against the Buckeyes (31-8).
Taylor's two free throws with 8.3 seconds left gave Kansas a 64-61 lead, matching its biggest of the game. The Jayhawks intentionally fouled Aaron Craft with 2.9 seconds left. Craft made the first, then quickly clanked the second one off the front of the rim but was called for a lane violation.
Kansas dribbled out the clock and celebrated a win that played out sort of the way the whole season has in Lawrence.
"It was two different games," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "They dominated us the first half. We were playing in quicksand it looked like. And the light came on. We were able to play through our bigs; we were able to get out and run, but the biggest thing is we got stops."
Early in the year, Self wondered if this team was even tournament material. The Jayhawks trailed most of the night against Purdue in the second round and were no better than North Carolina until pulling away late in the regional final.
One win. Then another. This latest one came on the biggest stage — in the Superdome. Next, a meeting Monday with Kentucky and a chance to bring the second title in five years back to Allen Fieldhouse.
The game will be a coaching rematch between Self and John Calipari, who was coaching Memphis in 2008 when the Tigers missed four free throws down the stretch and blew a nine-point lead in an overtime loss to Mario Chalmers and the Jayhawks.
"It would be a great honor" to win, said Kansas senior Conner Teahan, who could become the first Jayhawk to win two rings. "First we have to make it happen. Honestly, it's not something I've focused on."
This was a heartbreaker for the Buckeyes, who came in as co-Big Ten champions and a slight favorite in a game — a rematch of a 78-67 Kansas win back in December when Ohio State's star, Jared Sullinger, was not available.
Sullinger was there a-plenty Saturday night, but he struggled. He finished with 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting, no fewer than three of them blocked by Jeff Withey, the Kansas center who finished with seven swats. Sullinger also had 11 rebounds and a steal, but the sophomore who gave up NBA lottery money to return and win a championship will go without for at least another year.
When the buzzer sounded, he plopped at midcourt, clearly pooped — and maybe wondering how his team let this game slip away.
"They're a great team," Craft said. "They're going to make a run, and they did. And we weren't able to weather it like we have before."
Ohio State-Kansas was billed as "The Other Game" of this Final Four — garnering much less ink than the Kentucky-Louisville blood feud that preceded it — and started off looking like every bit the undercard.
The Buckeyes built an early 13-point lead on the strength of the shooting of William Buford, who came out of a 13-for-44 tournament slump to lead the Buckeyes with 19 points on 6 for 10 from the floor. Kansas trailed 34-25 at the half and only a steal and layup before the buzzer prevented the Jayhawks from a season-low.
"They wore us out the first half. But it's a 40-minute game," Self said. "There's no 13-point plays. You have to grind it and get one stop at a time"
Things changed when Ohio State came out and promptly missed its first 10 shots from the field, while Deshaun Thomas — the Ohio State big man in charge of shutting down Robinson — headed to the bench with his third foul.
That opened everything up for KU: A couple easy layups for Robinson and a kick-out to Elijah Johnson for a 3-pointer were part of a 13-4 run to open the half. It tied the game at 38 and set up for a nip-and-tuck finish between these No. 2 seeds, each of which took at least a share of their conference regular-season title and were in the hunt for top seeding all the way up to Selection Sunday.
Releford finished with 15 points and six rebounds for the Jayhawks. Johnson had 13 points and 10 boards. Taylor finished with 10 points and nine assists — not bad considering the time Craft spent nearly inside his jersey much of the night.
Releford's free throws with 1:37 left put KU ahead 60-59. Buford tried to take the ball to the basket on the next possession, but Withey swatted it away. Johnson followed with a layup — hardly as dramatic as his game-winner against Purdue, but enough for a three-point lead, which seemed like a million for the Jayhawks in this one.
Not that the Jayhawks have to have a big lead — or any lead.
"It's just been our thing all year, coming back," Robinson said. "I don't like doing it, but for some reason my team is pretty good when we're down."