Title game a rollercoaster of emotions for KU basketball fans in Lawrence

photo by: Mike Yoder

Thousands of KU fans storm Massachusetts Street after KU's 72-69 win over North Carolina Monday, April 4, 2022, in the men's NCAA basketball championship.

A vehicle-less Massachusetts St. was flat. Nothing else in downtown Lawrence was on Monday evening.

The Kansas Jayhawks pulled off a national championship comeback for the ages trailing by 15 points at halftime and then steamrolled fellow blue blood North Carolina in the second half. KU won 72-69.

“It has been a roller coaster of emotions,” Hannah Hartnett, a freshman from Chicago, said from a crowd of people gathered around an outdoor television positioned on Massachusetts St.

“I feel like we are definitely a second-half team, so I knew I had to keep my hopes up.”

That was only a partially shared sentiment at halftime.

A college-age passer-by had a disturbing thought: “And worst of all, it is Monday (expletive) night.”

But then the second half came. A crowd remained gathered and enthusiastic — but restless — around a flat-screen TV suspended high in the air on a Sky Jack construction lift. As the Jayhawks chipped away at the lead, they started chanting, defense, defense, defense. And like magic, the Jayhawks rebounded a missed shot, and Jayhawk Christian Braun made a driving layup to cut the North Carolina lead to 46-43. A few minutes later, it was tied at 50 and there was no holding the crowd back. A random firework exploded and lit up a portion of the sky.

“I love the energy out here,” Colton Hill from Salina said. “I just knew we were going to come back.”

Hill said he felt that way all season, even when the Jayhawks seemingly hit a low point that looked difficult to dig out of — an 80-62 thrashing by Kentucky in Allen Fieldhouse in late January. That’s a game that seems even longer ago now.

“We’ve been rattled a little bit this year, but it is nothing we can’t shake off,” Hill said. “That’s why we are here now.”

And with the win, Hill said this KU team has cemented an unmistakable identity for itself.

“Comeback kids,” he said. “Two words. That’s all you need to say.”

For others, the night was as much of a second chance as a comeback. More than a few fans remembered how KU was the No. 1 overall team in the country two seasons ago when the NCAA tournament was canceled due to COVID right as it was set to begin.

“I didn’t have a lot of hope at first,” Eric Bloom, of Lawrence, said about his thoughts early in the season. “I kind of lost hope when the tournament was canceled that year. I figured that was our shot. But now, it is like we are getting a makeup.”

Bloom was watching the tournament via one of the more unique setups in downtown. In the 800 block of Massachusetts Street, his friend Jimmy Long set up a television on a pair of steel saw horses in a parking space. Long doesn’t have a business or anything else in downtown. Just a desire to tailgate — minus a vehicle — on championship night.

“I’m probably the only guy on Massachusetts Street not trying to make a buck off the game,” Long said.

He almost certainly was the only guy powering his television off of a battery from an electric bicycle, parked right behind the TV.

No, Long didn’t have to pedal to keep the power going, but at halftime there were plenty of people who were willing to try about anything. One unidentified man standing in line along a row of portable toilets tried to rally the fidgety fans.

“There has to be a story. There has to be a story of a comeback. First Memphis and now this,” he said, harking back to KU’s 2008 championship victory that also involved a comeback.

Not everyone was buying it, but plenty were.

Brevan Martinez was sitting on the front row of the outside seating area of the Red Lyon Tavern on Massachusetts Street He snagged the seat at 4 p.m. — more than four hours before tipoff. A KU senior, he said a victory “would mean everything” to him.

And on this mild Kansas spring night — cloudy with periods of nervousness was the unofficial weather report — Martinez wasn’t about to settle for defeat.

“I always believe in the Jayhawks,” he said. “I always have. I always believe.”

Now, a whole lot more do too.

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