NEW ORLEANS – North Carolina gave Kansas all it could handle in Monday night's national championship game here in the Big Easy, but these Tar Heels by the time the final horn sounded were the literal definition of walking wounded. In their 72-69 loss to the Jayhawks, each of the Tar Heels' top three scorers went down with various maladies, and off-the-bench hero Puff Johnson added himself to the lengthy injury list late after vomiting on the court (and later in the trash can just off the court) following a blow to the stomach.
The biggest injury of them all was the only one that lingered from the weekend to North Carolina star big man Armando Bacot, who on Saturday late against Duke appeared to injure his ankle. Bacot returned to the game vs. Duke, rehabbed religiously in the lead-up to the title tilt after the Final Four win and then gave 38 gutty minutes on Monday night. But in the final few minutes, he tweaked the ankle and did not return.
"The last 24 hours, I'd say 15 of them were spent just trying to get my ankle better," Bacot said. "Right before the game I couldn't even really jump. Luckily I was able to play 38 minutes."
Second-leading scorer Caleb Love, who days earlier dropped 28 points on rival Duke, also tweaked an ankle in the second half on a freak play while backpedaling and taking a misstep. Love played all 20 second-half minutes, but was gimpy for most of them and finished 5 of 24 shooting on the night.
Yes, the irony is real: you could say the Heels were ultimately felled by feet. Go figure.
Bacot's injury was easily the most consequential – and perhaps controversial – of them all. With less than 90 seconds remaining, Bacot drove to the basket and aggravated the same ankle as the one he injured in Saturday's game. A replay of the injury appears to show that the hardwood beneath him gave way.
"I thought I made a good move and I got the angle I wanted," he said. "I just rolled my ankle as I was going up. I was just trying to get back . . . I struggled. I couldn't put any weight down on my right leg [after that]. Right then I knew I was done."
After Bacot was sidelined, Kansas immediately attacked UNC's missing presence in the post, going right at Brady Manek for a go-ahead bucket that gave the Jayhawks the lead for good.
Manek, like Bacot and Love and Johnson, played through his own injury after taking a ding to the dome from Kansas star David McCormack in the first half (and later taking another bop to the head). He seemed wobbly getting up, but still played 36 minutes and finished with 13 points.
Johnson finished with 11 points, tying the most for him over the last month.
UNC has proudly dubbed its starting unit the "Iron Five" – because its starters play heavy minutes and have carried it with immense strength down the stretch run of the season – but on Monday with the minutes piling on and the gas tank running close to E, it seemed to finally catch up with the eighth-seeded Tar Heels. It gave away a 16-point first-half lead, while Kansas stormed to the finish line strong and more energized.
"I don't think anybody was thinking about being tired," Love said. "We were just trying to go out there and do whatever we had to do to get the win, and it was just unfortunate that we came up short."
"We were just trying to remain positive and things weren't going our way," Tar Heels guard RJ Davis said. "The shots that we usually make we were missing and coming up short."
For Kansas, it's a fitting end of a run to a fabulous March Madness that was marred by injuries – to opponents. It faced shorthanded Creighton in the second round without Ryan Kalkbrenner and Ryan Nembhard, Villanova in the Final Four without minutes leader Justin Moore and North Carolina with its three leading scorers either getting banged up in the title game or bringing in an injury to the matchup. Sometimes you need a break, and often Kansas -- to the bitter end -- got one in this tournament. So it goes.
"We all really wanted to win," Bacot said. "We came this far. This was a huge goal for us, was to just hang up a banner. We just really wanted to win. We wouldn't let anything stop us from trying to get to that point."
Kansas Jayhawks championship gear released
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