Four-ward! Believe it — KU in Final Four

Kansas players crowd around head coach as they are presented with the Midwest Regional trophy as they celebrate the Jayhawks' 80-67 win over North Carolina to advance to the Final Four on Sunday, March 25, 2012 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

KU vs. North Carolina

Box score

? Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self motioned wife Cindy, daughter Lauren and son Tyler onto the court as his Jayhawk players partied on the podium after an 80-67 Elite Eight victory over North Carolina on Sunday in Edward Jones Dome.

“Unbelievable,” Self said as he hugged and kissed Cindy.

“Can you believe it?” he intoned, engulfing KU junior Lauren in a bear hug.

“That was great, huh?” he exclaimed, patting Free State High senior Tyler on the back.

You’d better believe KU’s ninth-year mentor was beaming after his No. 2-seeded Jayhawks (31-6) held explosive No. 1 seed (32-6) Carolina scoreless the last 3:58, using a wild 12-0 run to blow open a 68-67 nail-biter.

“I love them,” Self said, referring this time to not his blood relatives but his extended family — his 2011-12 players, who will meet Ohio State in a Final Four semifinal approximately 7:49 p.m. Saturday in the New Orleans Superdome. They’ve propelled him to his second Final Four overall, KU’s first since the 2008 national title team.

“In ’08 I was happy for the kids, but me, too. When we won in ’08, I felt I got a gorilla off my back,” said Self, who at that time was tagged the best coach never to reach a Final Four. “Now I’m just happy for the kids and the school. It’s so much fun to do something when nobody thinks you can.”

Self gave an emotional talk to his Midwest Regional championship team in the locker room after hugging players such as regional MVP Thomas Robinson (18 points, nine rebounds) and all-tourney team player Tyshawn Taylor (22 points, six rebounds, five assists, five steals), who wore their Final Four souvenir hats backwards with strands of the Jones Dome nets tied onto their caps’ strap.

Jeff Withey also made the all-tourney team after scoring 15 points off 5-of-5 shooting with eight rebounds on the night and coming up with two huge blocks in that 12-0 run.

“Coach said this is a great team to coach. He said in ’08 he felt we had to make it there. He said this year was different (with no McDonald’s All-Americans to North Carolina’s six),” senior guard Conner Teahan said of the postgame speech.

“He said he’s never seen a team play better in a big-time game,” added Teahan, an effective ball-mover who missed the only shot he took in 13 minutes Sunday night.

The Jayhawks were superb offensively the first half in hitting 56.3 percent of their shots (to UNC’s 63.6 mark) as the squads played to a 47-47 tie. But defense (a triangle-and-two proved effective the final eight minutes) carried the Jayhawks the second half, holding UNC to miserable 22.6 percent shooting, 0-for-10 beyond the arc.

KU hit 35.5 percent the second half and made four of 14 threes overall to UNC’s two of 17.

“We gave up 47 points the first half. You can’t win a game doing that,” Robinson said. “We knew we had to do a better job on defense the second half. We held North Carolina to 20 points in a half (to KU’s 33). Our guards were great on the perimeter. I’m so proud of this team.”

Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford spent the last eight minutes chasing Harrison Barnes (13 points, 5-for-14 shooting) as well as Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston.

Johnson also had one of the key offensive plays of the game. He stuck a three-pointer with 3:09 left, starting that 12-0 run with a huge bucket that boosted a 68-67 lead to 71-67.

“I wouldn’t want to go home tonight saying I could have shot that three that he backed off of me on,” Johnson said of a Carolina perimeter defender daring him to shoot. “He took a step backward, and I made him pay for it. I keep finding myself in these situations where in a late game I’m taking that shot. It wasn’t something I panicked about or got nervous about.

“I did what I do. I shot the ball,” added Johnson, who had 10 points off 3-of-11 shooting.

After that, it was Withey’s defense that led to offense.

First, he blocked a John Henson shot leading to a Taylor driving layup and ensuing free throw that gave the Jayhawks a 74-67 advantage at 1:59. Then Withey blocked an attempt by Stilman White, who scored four points off 1-for-5 shooting with seven assists and no turnovers in playing for the injured Kendall Marshall.

On the other end, Travis Releford finished a dunk, and KU led, 76-67, at 1:13.

“I had two blocks for the game, and they came at the end,” grinned Withey, who actually had three rejections in 28 minutes. His two blocks came after he was whistled for his fourth foul with 3:58 left. “I wasn’t worried about the foul situation. At that point of the game, you have to play.”

“I said something to Jeff as soon as we got to the locker room,” Taylor said. “To make that play with four fouls, to get the block and tip it out to me, was huge.”

“How ’bout Withey?” Self asked. “He had a great regional. He was fantastic against North Carolina State (in Sweet 16), too.”

Of not taking him out with four fouls, Self said: “You’ve got to win the game. Some coaches will take him out. If we had a four-point lead, I may have taken him out a possession or two. But in a tight game like that, I was going to let it ride.”

Releford hit one free throw at :49 and Johnson followed with two at :36, giving the crowd an opportunity to break into a loud “Rock Chalk Chant” with a 79-67 lead at :36.

“There’s no better feeling since I started playing basketball,” Withey said. “The last two years we fell short (in Elite Eight and second round). This time we made it, no better feeling.”

Robinson, who hit six of 16 shots but five of five free throws on a night KU made 18 of 24 charities to Carolina’s nine of 12, said the key was the Jayhawks’ deciding at a team meeting Saturday they had to be aggressive, not tentative or nervous, against the Tar Heels.

“They have great players,” Robinson said. “Zeller (Tyler, 12 points, six boards) is the strongest post player I’ve guarded in my life. White stepped up big-time. They’ve got a great team, but we were able to come out aggressive and stay with them the first half and play defense with that triangle the second half.”

The two teams came out firing, with the Jayhawks leading 40-33 with 3:59 left. UNC then went on a 14-5 run to grasp a 47-45 lead.

“They played terrific the first half,” Taylor said, “but we didn’t back down, either. We came out aggressive, then switched defenses the second half and kind of confused them. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”

“This game meant a lot to us and the people who support this program,” Robinson said. “It meant a lot to this team. Except for Tyshawn, everybody on this team made the transition from role players to main players. Nobody thought we could do it, but we did it.”