KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- He’s the projected No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, the leading scorer for one of the nation’s top teams and the latest Kansas Jayhawk to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The reasoning was simple.
“We were better without him,” KU coach Bill Self said.
The comment wasn't a jab at McLemore. No player is immune to a bad game. Not even a star freshman such as McLemore. Instead, Self's words were a testament to why the Jayhawks are one of the most dangerous teams remaining in the NCAA tournament and a favorite to reach the Final Four.
On a night when McLemore scored just two points, Kansas turned to its other secret weapon -- its experience -- to defeat the Tar Heels and advance to the Sweet 16. Travis Releford scored 22 points and Jeff Withey added 16 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks to propel the Jayhawks in front of more than 18,000 fans at the Sprint Center.
The gutsy effort shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering all four seniors played significant roles in last season’s march to the NCAA title game, where the Jayhawks lost to Kentucky.
“We have toughness,” Withey said. “We know what it takes to win a game. You can see that just by the way we played in the second half. All four of us -- we didn’t want it to be over.”
But it almost was following one of Kansas’ most woeful first halves of the season. The Jayhawks missed 12 of their first 13 field goal attempts en route to a 7-of-28 performance in the opening stanza. North Carolina forced KU into 12 first-half turnovers, which resulted in a 30-21 Tar Heels lead at intermission.
“We were sped up,” Self said. “Our guys care so much, and sometimes when you care as much as our guys, you played tight.”
Self tried to fire up his squad at halftime, but just as they would do later on the court, KU’s seniors were the ones who made the biggest difference in the locker room.
Withey singled out nearly every member of the team, pointing at them and screaming, “Is this how you want it to end?”
Releford made sure his voice was heard, too.
“This could be our last 20 minutes,” he said he shouted at his teammates. “We can go out there and leave it all on the court or we can roll over like we did in the first half.”
Releford’s speech made a huge impact.
“It did a lot,” KU guard Naadir Tharpe said. “It woke us up.”
Johnson’s 3-pointer early in the second half forced a 35-35 tie and ignited a 38-23 game-ending run for Kansas. Withey was dominant in the paint, Young played lockdown defense on P.J. Hairston and Releford limited UNC standout Reggie Bullock to five points, nearly 10 below his average.
“That was the best game he’s played in a Kansas uniform,” Self said of Releford, who was playing before his hometown fans in his native Kansas City.
McLemore, who entered the game averaging 16.2 points, played just six minutes in the second half and finished with a season-low two points, both of which came on free throws. He was 0-for-9 from the field.
“I think it’s exciting for our team to know that you can win a game like this and have your leading scorer not make a basket,” Self said.
Self knows that probably wouldn’t have happened if Kansas didn’t boast such a senior-laden roster. And it’s no secret that the teams with the most experience are usually the ones that advance the furthest in the NCAA tournament.
The Jayhawks won the 2008 championship with a veteran cast that included Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun. Tyler Hansbrough led UNC to the title as a senior in 2009. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith did the same for Duke a year later and Connecticut wouldn’t have won the 2011 championship without junior guard Kemba Walker.
Even last year’s Kentucky team -- which was heavy on freshmen -- boasted a trio of veterans in Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.
“[Experience] brings a calm,” said Johnson, who has now played in 13 NCAA tournament games. “It brings more leadership. It brings a lot of things to the table. It brings things that younger players don’t have.”
Pleased as they were with Sunday’s victory, the Jayhawks know their chances of continuing to advance will be slim if McLemore doesn’t break out of his slump. In 10 of his past 11 games, McLemore’s point total has been less than that of his season average of 16.2. McLemore is shooting just 42.4 percent in those 10 contests, and only 34.6 percent from 3-point range.
“That’s going to happen with a freshman,” Withey said. “He’s going to be up and down. We know that. We need him to be ready for the next game. He’s still a stud, still a top-five pick in the NBA draft. It’s all a mindset.
“Thank God we have a week to prepare for this next one. We need him to be firing on all cylinders.”
That would help.
But even if McLemore isn’t, it’d be foolish to count out Kansas.
Just ask North Carolina.