By Stewart Mandel
March 25, 2012

ST. LOUIS -- Happiness bled through Thomas Robinson as he climbed to the top of the ladder, cutting his strand of the net, kissing it and showing it off to the Kansas faithful. Ditto Jeff Withey as he waved his newly acquired Final Four T-shirt like a towel and joined his teammates on the stage for the trophy presentation. And there was Travis Releford, so overcome with emotion he couldn't find the words to answer questions in the locker room afterward.

Conversely, agony suffocated Harrison Barnes as he sat in front of his locker in the North Carolina dressing room, blue towel covering his face, virtually motionless for more than 20 minutes. Or Kendall Marshall, still wearing a suit and that black brace on his wrist, having to pause between words just to formulate a sentence. Or Stilman White, his face flushed red from crying, as he got on the back of a golf cart to head to a press conference.

The final score didn't remotely tell the story of Kansas' 80-67 Elite Eight victory over North Carolina on Sunday, a game that sent one of Bill Self's least-heralded teams to next week's Final Four and ended preseason No. 1 North Carolina's desperate attempt to defy injury and attain a national championship.

"I'm going to enjoy this moment," said Robinson as he tried on his Final Four T-shirt afterward.

"This is the most disappointing feeling I've ever had in my life," said Tar Heels forward James Michael McAdoo.

For 36 minutes, the Midwest Regional's top two seeds staged the type of frenetic, back-and-forth nail-biter where you had to check the scoreboard between baskets to remember which team was winning.

It was 47-47 at halftime, with the teams combining to shoot a scorching 60 percent. Jayhawks All-American Robinson was his typically dominant and versatile self, while Barnes, the Tar Heels' one-time preseason All-American, woke up from a long slumber, knocking down four of six shots in the first half.

This was not the same North Carolina team that bumbled through a Sweet 16 overtime win against Ohio as it played for the first time without standout point guard Marshall. This was not the same Kansas team that shot below 40 percent in squeakers against Purdue and NC State, so dependant on its defense.

That is, until a brilliant late-game strategic move by Self restored order and allowed the Jayhawks to run away in the end.

"They changed up their defense, and we never could figure it out," said Tar Heels forward John Henson. "That's why we're going home."

The move, with less than 10 minutes remaining, was to switch to a triangle-and-two. Self had it in his pocket the whole game, waiting for the right moment, though he thought simply pressuring freshman fill-in point guard White and his substitute, Justin Watts, might throw the Heels off enough. Instead, "they had nine points, eight assists and zero turnovers," said Self. "Unbelievable."

But once Kansas made the switch, suddenly Barnes and Reggie Bullock weren't getting open looks outside. Suddenly the lane was closed off to big men Henson and Tyler Zeller, Suddenly White, so surprisingly effective distributing the ball in the first half, was instead left with little choice but to shoot, which he did, missing all three attempts from behind the arc.

Suddenly the Tar Heels, so picturesque on offense in the first half, were hesitant and confused. They would shoot just 22.6 percent in the second half, the lowest tourney performance in school history.

Still, as late as the 3:08 mark, Kansas led by just one point, 68-67.

"For about 34, 35 minutes, we were part of a fantastic basketball game," said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams.

But then, Kansas' defense ended the drama.

In a backbreaking sequence, after Elijah Johnson drained a three-pointer to put the Jayhawks up by four, 71-67, shot-blocking extraordinaire Withey swatted a running jumper by Henson. He tipped it ahead to Taylor, who scored on a breakaway layup, drew the foul from an overmatched White and hit the free throw. Next time down, Withey notched another block, this one on White, and when Releford threw down a dunk on the other end to make it 76-67 with 1:29 left, it was clear the Jayhawks would advance.

Self would admit the Jayhawks "caught a break" with Marshall's absence. The sophomore was ruled out early Sunday. "If I would have been out there, I wouldn't have been effective," the forlorn point guard said afterward. He then commended White, who "did a great job. I don't think you could have asked much more of him when you're thrown into a situation and asked to lead a Top 5 team into the Final Four."

His team showed almost no drop-off for 34 minutes. But then, remarkably, Kansas held North Carolina without a field goal over the game's last 5:46, and without a point for the last 3:58.

"It was just what we needed," said Withey. "We locked down."

While Robinson was named the region's Most Outstanding Player, Withey may have been the most valuable. Following up his 10-block tour de force two nights earlier, the 7-footer made all five of his field goals to score 15 points (his most since Feb. 1), grabbed eight rebounds and notched two of his three blocks after picking up his fourth foul.

"I wasn't really too worried about fouling out," he said. "I knew that if I would have backed up, they would have made a couple extra shots. So I just knew I had to be aggressive and keep on trying to block shots."

Withey's journey to New Orleans parallels many of his teammates'. After transferring from Arizona shortly into his freshman year in 2008, Withey spent two years backing up future NBA big men Cole Aldrich and Markieff and Marcus Morris. Along with former sixth man Robinson and fellow reserves Johnson and Releford, he stepped into a starting role for a team that entered the year with far lower outside expectations than their two immediate predecessors -- top-seeded squads that fell to Northern Iowa (2010 second round) and VCU (2011 Elite Eight).

They wound up winning 31 games (to date) and advancing to New Orleans, where they'll once again be a likely underdog against semifinal opponent Ohio State (despite beating the Buckeyes 78-67 on Dec. 10, a game Buckeyes star Jared Sullinger sat out), and, should the opportunity present itself, most certainly against Kentucky.

"This team's probably played as close to a ceiling as any team that I've had," said Self. "I don't think you can give 110 percent. I think all you can give is 100. And this team has given as close to 100 as any team I've ever coached."

Only one notable flaw persisted throughout the weekend. Taylor -- the Jayhawks' humorous and often frustrating senior guard -- has missed all 17 three-pointers he's attempted this tournament. A reporter pointed out to him Sunday that he's yet to hit a three-pointer in a domed stadium.

"I don't even care. I don't care one bit," he replied with a grin on his face. "I don't like domes, but you know what? Domes love me, because we won."

Then he stopped and asked, sincerely: "Is New Orleans a dome too?" Yes, he was told. The Final Four will be played in the Mercedez Benz Superdome. "Aw, man," he exclaimed, and Self and his fellow starters cracked up on the dais.

For once, these Jayhawks could relax in the aftermath of the Elite Eight. The heartbreak of failing to meet hefty expectations transferred to the other locker room this year. Kansas and North Carolina leave St. Louis with diametrically opposite feelings, but both played their part in an exhilarating performance.

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