NEW ORLEANS -- Take a deep breath, if you can, then dig in to this immediate reaction to Kansas' 64-62 win over Ohio State:
Overview: The Buckeyes opened with what might have been their best half of basketball in the 2012 season. Jared Sullinger was getting good touches on the low block, William Buford and Deshaun Thomas were lacing 3-pointers and the defense -- Ohio State's best characteristic all season and the one that earned them this spot in the Final Four -- was utterly stifling. By the six-minute mark, OSU had held the Jayhawks to just 13 points, opened a 26-13 lead and looked likely to dominate their national semifinal in unexpectedly impressive fashion.
And then, of course, the game changed, because Kansas changed. The Jayhawks began pressuring and doubling Sullinger on every touch, and the forward began to cough it up and force bad looks over forward Jeff Withey's outstretched arms. Things got easier on the offensive end, too, where Withey and forward Thomas Robinson began to find space on the low block, where they converted easy dunks and layups on screen and rolls and post-ups, the kind they couldn't find in the first 20 minutes. Kansas' guards scored on turnovers, found their way to the rim and chipped away at the deficit. Meanwhile, Deshaun Thomas spent much of the half on the bench with three -- and then, nearly as soon as he returned, four -- fouls.
By the 14-minute mark in the second half, Kansas had gone on a 25-12 run in little more than 12 minutes, tying the game at 38. From there, the game would always be in the balance.
Turning point: The Jayhawks kept up the pressure, but never built their own lead, even as Thomas languished on the sidelines with four fouls. This was a major victory for the Buckeyes: They had their second-best offensive player off the floor for nearly the entire second half and they gave up their big lead, but they never let Kansas take control of the game. Thomas re-entered at the under-four-minute timeout. OSU led, 55-53.
The Buckeyes still couldn't pull away. With 2:22 left to play, Aaron Craft's steal and fast-break layup gave the Buckeyes a three-point lead, but Kansas nipped and clawed, and with two minutes left it finally took its first lead since the first basket of the game. Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson delivered on remarkable drives to the paint, Withey made a huge block on the other end and the Jayhawks suddenly found themselves up 62-59 with just one minute to play.
With 55 seconds left, Robinson poached a steal from Thomas, but Craft -- in what may have been the day's best defensive play -- ripped the ball out before Robinson could convert on the break. OSU didn't get a bucket on the next possession, but it was bailed out by a Withey travel (the right, albeit very unpopular, call). Thomas launched a too-early 3 on the other end, which Buford followed up with a putback dunk, and Kansas needed merely to make its free throws to ensure at least a tie game with 8.3 seconds left.
Taylor converted on both. Then, he stole the ball -- a game-sealing play! -- before throwing it away on an overzealous bounce pass. (This is Tyshawn Taylor in a nutshell.) Releford fouled Craft before Craft could shoot a 3 -- not that he didn't try. Craft made the first free throw but was called for a lane violation on the second. The game ended just like that; Craft and his stunned teammates staring at the officials and the scoreboard and each other in disbelief.
Kansas fans started throwing their seat pads in the general direction of the floor, makeshift confetti for the ensuing party. The Jayhawks will have their chance at a national title Monday night. The party had begun.
Key stat: Offensive rebounding percentage. The Jayhawks grabbed 37.5 percent of their misses and limited Ohio State to just 25 percent of theirs, the key difference between two defensively dominant teams in a game in which the smallest of statistical margins made outsized impacts.
Key player: Withey. Every Jayhawk played a role in their comeback and eventual win, and Robinson's night -- 19 points, 8 rebounds, 8-of-18 from the field -- can't be overlooked. But the most important performance came from the 7-foot Withey, whose incredible reach and interior defense made Sullinger a nonfactor on the offensive end. Withey finished with 7 blocks and 8 rebounds; Sullinger posted just 13 points on 5-of-19 from the field. In a game filled with tricky matchup issues, Withey was the biggest mismatch ace up Bill Self's sleeve. He proved why Saturday night.
Miscellaneous: Kansas continued its rather remarkable string of second-half defensive turnarounds. In the past three games (before the Final Four), the Jayhawks have allowed opponents to score 38.7 points per half on 50.0 percent shooting and 51.9 percent from beyond the arc. In the second half of those games, the Jayhawks have allowed just 22.7 points, 22.4 shooting and 15.4 percent from the field. A similar situation unfolded in New Orleans. (Imagine if they locked down like this all game!) Either way, the turnarounds have been remarkable, enough to guide Kansas to the precipice of a national title. Crazy.
What's next: The unlikely story of these Kansas Jayhawks isn't over yet. Kansas survived yet another nail-biting NCAA tournament game -- its specialty in the weeks leading up to this Final Four -- and its latest escape act puts it on the sport's biggest stage, with a chance to take down the overwhelming favorite, the Kentucky Wildcats. The game is a coaching rematch of the 2008 Final Four, when Bill Self's Jayhawks made their nine-points-in-two-minutes comeback to steal a remarkable national title from then-Memphis coach John Calipari's grasp. If we're lucky, Monday night's edition of Self versus Calipari will be half as good. It certainly has that potential.
Meanwhile, Ohio State will head back to Columbus leveled, no doubt, by another missed national title opportunity. Sullinger, the team's star, is almost certain to leave for the NBA, where he'll be a likely lottery pick. Matta will have this team back near the top of the Big Ten yet again in 2013; his Buckeyes remain a recruiting haven and Thomas, Craft and a handful of talented young players will be back in the fold next season. But Matta will surely lament the inability to break through with his big man from Columbus -- the best Buckeyes' player since Greg Oden -- when he had the chance.