NEW ORLEANS – There were 50.2 seconds left in the Final Four semifinal game between Kansas and Villanova, and Ochai Agbaji was in complete command. There was no chance the Jayhawks were going to lose this game now. The fans in the stands already were singing, “Rock Chalk” because they knew this was over, but above that haunting melody KU’s reigning All-American was directing his teammates on the positions to take against and opposing press that had no chance of succeeding.
Great players compete to the end, or at least until they’re removed from the game to accept an ovation and so the deep reserves can say they appeared in a Final Four. And Kansas will appear in the 2022 NCAA Championship game first and foremost because Agbaji is an elite college basketball player.
It has been that way since the very first day of this season, and it figures to be that, in some form, on the very last.
“I think how we shoot, it in large part, probably depends on Ochai in many ways,” KU coach Bill Self told the media Saturday evening. Agbaji broke a Final Four record by hitting 6-of-7 from 3-point range on the way to 21 points, so how do you it went for the rest of the Jays? They were 13-of-24 and stormed to an 81-65 victory over the Wildcats.
“The start he got us off on,” Self said, “I think he just gave everybody else confidence.”
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Agbaji is a unanimous first-team All-American now, but perhaps you remember what it was like back during the season-opener, when he was coming off a season averaging 14 points and KU was in obvious need of a player who could perform like a first option. He slapped 29 on Michigan State that night, and thus began the journey to what is known in the game as “Monday Night.”
There is a reverence accorded those two words, primarily among coaches. Bill Self has been there Michigan vs. Ohio State Rivalry Shirts twice before and wound up on each side of the final score. This time, he will be the one entering the game with the best active college player.
He always has looked the part of a basketball player. Agbaji stood 6-5, 195 pounds while in high school, and he was the acclaimed as the best player in the Kansas City area during his final year at Oak Park High, but still not everyone saw it. He was not a McDonald’s All-American. He was not a top 100 recruit. He was, frankly, not the sort of player who’d ordinarily wind up with the Kansas Jayhawks.
Th Notre Dame vs. USC Rivalry Gear e plan initially was to redshirt him when he arrived at KU in the fall of 2018, but it was obvious halfway through the season he was needed and he w Coppin State Eagles Jerseys as ready.
“Obviously, my role has changed over the years,” Agbaji said. “I came in just being a contributor, a guy off the bench … As the years went by, my scoring was needed more on the team. And then this year, obviously, just to step up and be that man.”
He wasn’t the only one who fit that description in this game. The smaller Wildcats were overwhelmed inside by KU center David McCormack, who has battled through physical challenges this season that Self said often demanded two or three hours of treatment merely for him to play. That has been party of why he has been inconsistent, but he inflicted his size advantage – and plenty of skill – on the Wildcats.
“He’s been our guy NCAA Football gear from the jump,” Self said. “So much of performance has to do with the things the media and public don’t know about, namely health. There never was a question of who our guy was. I think he knew that, too, not matter how frustrated at times I could get.
“I’ve said all along, he’s the one guy on our team that can get 15 and 10 just by being a presence. Tonight he got 25 and 9. He was fabulous.”
Without veteran guard Justin Moore available to play his customary 36 minutes because of his achilles injury, Villanova coach Jay Wright had to reimagine his starting lineup and his rotation. He and his staff settled on opening with their five best available players: center Eric Dixon, forward Jermaine Samuels, guards Collin Gillespie and Caleb Daniels and, in the vacant position, dynamic forward Brandon Slater.
Presumably, that woul Angelo State Rams clothes d keep the Villanova defense functional and the offense would have to find a way to work. Neither turned out to be true. The Jayhawks scored the game’s WVU vs. Pitt Rivalry Gear first 10 points, with Agbaji striking twice from the right win and center McCormack powering inside for two layups the smaller Wildcats could not bother.
At the offensive end, the Wildcats forced too much action and wound up committing four early turnovers and missing their first two shots. Wright eventually sent in junior Bryan Antoine, a player whose career has been almost entirely compromised by injury, and while he added a sense of balance to the squad that College Cold Weather Shirts seemed to be missing while playing three players more comfortable as forwards, he also missed two wide-open 3-pointers that developed for him and could have been game-changers.
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After the Wildcats fought to close the gap to 40-29 at halftime, all the way back from a menacing 33-16 deficit with a little more than 7 minutes to play, Wright went back with the original lineup a the start of the second half and it went just as poorly. A 10-5 surge in the first 3:10 – which included Agbaji’s fifth 3-pointer without a miss – pushed the KU lead right back up to 50-34.
That group eventually returned down the stretch and performed much better, with a 3-point play from Samuels squeezing the KU lead down to a mere six points, a level of competitiveness this game had not seen since it was 2 minutes Delta State Statesmen clothes old.
“Even though they were the better team the first 12 minutes of the second half, had momentum, we always seemed to have an answer,” Self said.
There wasn’t anything KU could do except hope on the one shot that might have changed the game, when Daniels had an open 3-pointer with 8:24 left that would have cut the Villanova deficit to four points. It rimmed out.
“We got lucky there,” Self said.
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After a single Samuels free throw had made it 68-59 with 4:29 left, the Jayhawks ran through 29 seconds of the shot-clock cycle before Christian Braun while able to curl up to the left wing and nail a 3-pointer that once again extended the lead to double digits. That would be it for the Wildcats.
Many of these Jayhawks were on the 2020 team that was ranked No. 1 on March 11, 2020 and left without an NCAA Tournament to play, like all of college basketball, a day later. And so they chase what might already have been theirs, led by Agbaji rather than 7-0 center Udoka Azubuike, who played has last regular-season game without knowing his career was over.
“I think it does have some added value to me and these players,” Self said. “There’s no guarantees in this tournament, but in ’20 we had a team equipped to make the run. We were so good defensively and we had enough scoring.
“Even though we haven’t talked about this, these guys haven’t really tasted what the NCAA Tournament is about. I think there’s added value for this tournament because of what we missed out on in 20.”