NEW ORLEANS -- With his team having rallied from a 13-point deficit, to reclaim the lead with less than three minutes remaining, Jeff Withey believed for a brief moment he'd just sealed a victory. With 27 seconds remaining in Kansas' national semifinal matchup with Ohio State, the 7-footer caught a pass in the lane, strode forward and finished an easy lay-up that would put his team up by at least a five-point margin. The Jayhawks' contingent of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd went nuts and a whistle blew, indicating a possible and-one. He roared with satisfaction.
And then everyone's mood changed when the ref signaled traveling.
"That was a swing of emotions," he said. "I didn't think it was a walk."
Withey would have cause to celebrate soon enough, however. Despite trailing nearly the entire game, despite subpar shooting nights from its two biggest stars, Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, and despite blowing two last-second chances to ice things on a pair of turnovers, Kansas held on to beat the No. 2 seeded Buckeyes, 64-62, and no Jayhawk proved more important than their shot-blocking specialist.
"Anthony Davis is the best shot-blocker in the country," Kansas coach Bill Self said of the Kentucky All-American his team will now face Monday night. "But Jeff is probably second best. So you're going to have two great shot-blockers going against each other."
But before the Jayhawks could get to Monday, they had to dig themselves out of a sizable hole Saturday night -- and it started with one of Withey's national semifinal record seven blocks on the night.
The Buckeyes led 34-23 with less than 10 seconds before halftime when 6-2 point guard Aaron Craft drove to the basket, thinking for some reason he would lay one in over the 7-footer.
"I feel like a lot of guys don't respect [Withey]," said Taylor. "[They think] that he's soft, that he's a skinny guy, that he's not tough.
Withey, who now has a school-record 136 blocks on the season, soundly rejected Craft, allowing Kansas to set up an uncontested layup by Travis Releford to cut the deficit to single digits just as the half ended. Still, only one team in Final Four history had overcome a larger halftime deficit in a semifinal game than the one facing the Jayhawks.
But Withey set the tone again shortly into the second half when he blocked three shots from Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger within a 35-second span. The first set up a fast-break opportunity for Elijah Johnson, whose jumper cut the score to 36-29. The next two came on both an initial jump shot and put-back attempt by the 6-9, 280-pound Sullinger. The clearly affected Buckeyes star would finish just 5-of-19 from the field.
"He's a big guy, he's a great offensive player, but I think my length kind of bothered him," said Withey. "My hands are a lot longer than his."
Withey and the rest of the Jayhawks noticeably cranked up their defense in the second half, holding Ohio State to 24.2 percent shooting (almost identical to North Carolina's miserable 22.6 percent figure in the second half of their Elite Eight game), and they gradually chipped away at the lead. The Jayhawks briefly tied the game 38-38 with 14:06 remaining, but Ohio State answered on a three-pointer by Craft and maintained the lead for another 11-plus minutes.
Only in the last two minutes did Kansas finally wipe away the Buckeyes' lead for good -- and once again, the push originated with a pair of Withey blocks.
First, with 1:42 left, he got his hand on another Craft lay-up. Releford hit two free throws on the other end to give the Jayhawks a 60-59 lead. Then, on the ensuing possession, Ohio State guard William Buford, who'd defied Kansas' defense most of the night to score a team-high 19 points, sprung free from Taylor on the block and appeared to have an open path to the basket. But Withey, who'd been fronting Sullinger at the top of the key, turned back to the basket, jumped and got a hand on the lay-up.
Johnson grabbed the rebound and raced for a layup on the other end to make it 62-59 with 1:12 remaining, the first time all night Kansas could claim control of the game.
"The block on Buford was unbelievable," said Self. "They had us. [Withey] turns two points for Ohio State into two point for us because Elijah made a great play."
Kansas hardly put things away in convincing fashion. First came Withey's layup-turned-travel. A thunderous dunk by Buford following two Ohio State offensive rebounds cut it to 62-61 with nine seconds left. Then, after two Taylor free throws pushed it back to 64-61, the Jayhawks' enigmatic point guard first sent Kansas fans into a frenzy when he picked off the Buckeyes' inbounds pass, then immediately horrified them when he proceeded to throw an errant pass straight into the Kansas bench.
But Kansas smartly fouled Craft with 2.9 seconds remaining, well before Ohio State could attempt a potential game-tying three. Craft made his first free throw, intentionally missed the second but got called for a lane violation after taking off for the rebound too soon. Ballgame.
It marked yet another last-second tourney escape for the Jayhawks, which needed a Johnson lay-up with 23 seconds remaining to go up on Purdue in a 63-60 Round of 32 victory and sweated N.C. State's final possession in an ugly 60-57 Sweet 16 win. Last Sunday's 80-67 victory over the Tar Heels marked a rare exhibit of offensive fluidity for this overachieving bunch, which advanced to the championship game in a more typical blue-collar fashion.
"We're a sloppy team sometimes," conceded Withey. "But we like that, because if we can get the other team out of rhythm, they're done."
That's precisely what Withey did to Sullinger and the Buckeyes for much of the second half Saturday. As a result, this Jayhawks that entered the season pegged as the most unimposing of Self's nine-year KU tenure has a chance to deliver his second national championship.