KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The losses to Kansas aren’t getting any easier for North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Of course, they aren’t getting any harder, either.
Every loss in the NCAA tournament stings, and that’s why Williams can recall in vivid detail just about all of them, going back to his own days leading the Jayhawks — and why he’ll certainly remember Sunday night’s second-half meltdown against the school he once coached.
“No, it is not any more painful,” Williams said, shortly after his eighth-seeded Tar Heels lost to the top-seeded Jayhawks 70-58 in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
“The fact that I coached here for 15 years is extremely important to me,” Williams said, “but it doesn’t add anything to today. I hurt for my kids in the locker room. The NCAA tournament, the swiftness with which your season ends is dramatic, and it hurts everywhere.”
Perhaps the location and opponent don’t matter, but the manner in which it happens does.
The Tar Heels (25-11) scrapped and clawed and fought their way to a 30-21 lead at the break, only to watch Kansas roar back behind seniors Jeff Withey and Travis Releford, seizing control midway through the second half and then pouring on the pressure down the stretch.
“It was definitely a nightmare in the second half,” Williams said, “no question about it.”
Withey had 16 points and 16 rebounds, and Releford finished with 22 points for the Jayhawks (31-5), who also knocked Williams’ team out of the NCAA tournament during their 2008 title run and again last season, when Kansas marched all the way to the Final Four.
The Jayhawks wound up outscoring North Carolina 49-28 after halftime, advancing into the South Regional semifinals against fourth-seeded Michigan on Friday in Arlington, Texas.
“We weren’t ourselves at all the first half. We were sped up and played nervous and timid and everything, and they beat us to loose balls, and they totally controlled the first half,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I thought the second half we played, really, really well.”
The subplot whenever two of college basketball’s bluest blue bloods meet these days centers on Williams, who coached the Jayhawks for 15 seasons and led them to four Final Fours. He’s always had a fond place in his heart for his former school, but the Southern charmer was booed heavily by the pro-Kansas crowd during pre-game introductions.
The din didn’t die down in the second half, when things spun out of control for North Carolina and Williams earned a warning from the officials for being outside the coaching box.
It was hard to blame him for being frustrated.
The 7-foot Withey shut down the paint, forcing the Tar Heels’ new-look, four-guard offense into hanging out around the perimeter. And when their perimeter shots quit falling, and the veteran Jayhawks started to get into transition, North Carolina was powerless to stop them.
P.J. Hairston scored 15 points and James Michael McAdoo finished with 11 for the Tar Heels.
“The first half was probably the hardest we’ve played all year. Everyone was at their best. We were flying all over the place,” said the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige. “In the second half, they got out in transition a couple times, and from there it just kept going.”
Kansas shot just 25 percent in the first half — just a bit better than the Tar Heels, who went at a 26-percent clip — as the teams combined to miss a staggering 52 shots.
Once the second half began, it was all Jayhawks.
Withey got the crowd inside the Sprint Center stirring with a put-back, and then after the Jayhawks had missed 13 straight 3-pointers to begin the NCAA tournament, Releford hit one from the wing to bring more than 18,000 fans — the vast majority Kansas fans — to their collective feet.
“We made some bonehead plays, especially me. I had six turnovers myself,” Withey said. “But in the second half, we got a better feel for them, what they were going to do.”
It certainly paid off, as the Jayhawks went on a 29-8 run out of the locker room.
The Jayhawks never relented through the second half, which was summed up with one spectacular play by Withey in the waning minutes: He batted a 3-point shot in the air, tracked it down himself, and then got the ball to Elijah Johnson, who was fouled and made two free throws.
The potential five-point swing gave Kansas a 67-52 lead.
It wasn’t long before that haunting chant of “Rock, chalk, Jayhawk, K-U!” — all too familiar to Williams, and now to his Tar Heels — began to echo through the cavernous building, ultimately replaced by a standing ovation from Kansas’ frenzied fans.
“We benefited from the game being played in Kansas City, no doubt about it,” Self said. “The first half, we didn’t utilize the benefit at all. I thought in the second half, we did. We gave the crowd a chance to be a factor.”