Strong second half lifts Kansas Jayhawks past Miami Hurricanes, to first Final Four since 2018

CHICAGO -- Kansas coach Bill Self never ruled out the possibility of his team reaching the Final Four.

He didn't feel as certain as he did in 2020, when Kansas spent the final month of the season ranked No. 1 before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the NCAA tournament. This Jayhawks version had looked elite at times, like when it thrashed defending national champ Baylor by 24 points on Feb. 5. The Jayhawks also had looked vulnerable, like when they lost to Kentucky by 18 at home on Jan. 29, or when they endured consecutive 10-point road defeats against Baylor and TCU.

Kansas showed both sides of itself in Sunday's Elite Eight matchup with Miami. Fortunately for Self and the top-seeded Jayhawks, their best emerged at the right time, as they used a dominant second half to submerge Miami 76-50 at the United Center. Kansas erased a six-point halftime deficit to reach its first Final Four since 2018 -- and fourth under Self -- where it will face Villanova on Saturday in New Orleans.

The 26-point win marked the largest in the Elite Eight by any team since 1992.

"That was about as well as we can play the second half," said Self, who improved to 4-7 in Elite Eight play and 4-5 at Kansas. "These guys earned it. So proud for them and proud for our program."

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Kansas' 26-point win tied for the largest among teams that had trailed NCAA tournament games at halftime. In 1964, Princeton defeated VMI by 26 points in the first round after trailing by one point at halftime. Miami's 15 second-half points marked a season low, and the 10th-seeded Hurricanes had scored no fewer than 31 points in a second half all season.

Self doesn't consider himself a gifted halftime speaker, but he challenged his team and noted how K.J. Adams' defense against Miami star Kameron McGusty on the final possession of the first half needed to be repeated for a comeback.

"We had a lot of opportunities in that first half to score, we had open looks," said All-American guard Ochai Agbaji, who led Kansas with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. "It was just a matter of us not making shots. Going into the second half it was, 'Lid's going come off at some point. Just keep guarding and focusing on guarding better. Then, the offense is going to come.'"

The offense came in bunches. Forward David McCormack scored the first five points of the half. Drives by Agbaji and Jalen Wilson followed, and then Christian Braun had a dunk and hit Kansas' first 3-pointer, which gave the team the lead for good at 43-40.

Kansas had missed all five of its 3-point attempts in the first half.

"We just needed some energy," said Braun, who finished with 12 points. "I thought we were flat in the first half. That shot and the dunk, I know it helped me and it helped the team just get going."

Miami, which had made more than 48% of its shots in the first half, struggled with selection and execution, and never got its trademark transition offense going. McGusty was held to just four points after halftime, crediting Kansas' defense for denying him the ball. Forward Sam Waardenburg and Jordan Miller, who combined for 29 points and 12 rebounds in a Sweet 16 win over Iowa State, had only seven points combined against Kansas.

Both also fouled out, exacerbating Kansas' size advantage exploited by McCormack (15 points) and Mitch Lightfoot (nine points).

"I use the expression, 'Don't play the score, play the game,' but we started playing the score," coach Jim Larrañaga said. "We looked up at the scoreboard, and we had fallen behind already. And I think that created some anxiety. What ends up happening is instead of settling down and executing better, we started to rush it even more. And that led to a lot of [Kansas] run-outs and fouls."

Kansas guard Remy Martin, the Arizona State transfer who struggled with a knee injury throughout January and February, had nine points and six rebounds, building on a 23-point performance against Providence in the Sweet 16. He earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the Midwest Region, and Kansas fans chanted his name afterward.

"We shared the [Big 12 title] without having the opportunity to play Remy," Self said. "Remy, in his core, always knew what he was capable of doing to help us, but we hadn't really seen it because his health hadn't allowed it. Our guys have more of a swagger now knowing what Remy can do to make us better."

Kansas advanced to its 16th Final Four, and won the Midwest Region for the 13th time. Before heading to New Orleans, the Jayhawks will return to campus, where the celebration along "Mass Street" -- Massachusetts Street -- had already started Sunday.

"Stay there, we'll be back," Braun said.

"We're not going to Mass [Street]," Self added, smiling. "KU students look for a great opportunity to have a beer every now and then."

The opportunity ahead for Kansas is to win its first national title since 2008. The Jayhawks' nine-game win streak marks their longest of the season.

"I've thought all along that this was a possibility," Self said. "But I've also thought all along that the margin for error wasn't such where we could get loose and have it be a probability. These guys have stayed focused, and they do play for each other.

"When we play the way that I think that we're capable of playing, I have total faith."