CHICAGO — The No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks overcame inconsistent shooting and a halftime deficit against Miami on Sunday to seize a 76-50 victory, winning the Midwest region and advancing to the Final Four.
For a time, an upset had seemed within reach for 10th-seeded Miami, which had already ventured deeper into the bracket than any prior Hurricanes team. Facing a talented but slump-prone Kansas lineup, it held Ochai Agbaji,a national player of the year finalist, to 6 first-half points. The Jayhawks missed every 3-point shot they attempted before halftime and converted only one-third of their first-half free throws.
But immediately after the intermission, Kansas regained its footing.
Agbaji, who finished the game as the Jayhawks’ leading scorer with 18 points, nabbed a steal from a Miami attacker, then launched a long pass to Christian Braun, who slammed the ball through the hoop to tie the game at 40 and enliven the pro-Jayhawk crowd at Chicago’s United Center. On the next Kansas possession, Braun, a junior guard, hit a 3-pointer, his team’s first of the night, giving the Jayhawks a lead they never relinquished.
“I think we needed some energy more than anything,” said Braun, who scored 12 points and pulled down 6 rebounds. “When I hit that 3, it was a big confidence booster for me and I’m sure for the rest of the team. We just needed some energy. I thought we were flat in the first half.”
Kansas, the Big 12 tournament champions and the only No. 1 seed to advance past the round of 16, showed flashes of greatness that sustained it through its early bouts of pained shooting.
Late in the first half, Remy Martin, an Arizona State transfer who emerged as a leading scorer for Kansas in the tournament, hit a long jump shot that narrowed Miami’s lead to 2 points. But the Hurricanes countered with a Kameron McGusty basket, a forced turnover and a length-of-the-floor drive by Isaiah Wong. When Martin seemed to have a lane to the basket for Kansas on the other end, McGusty swooped in for a block, sealing a 6-point halftime lead for Miami. McGusty finished the game with 18 points, leading the Hurricanes, and Wong with 15.
“I thought we did a darned good job in the first half playing the way we wanted to play, getting back defensively and scoring the ball,” Miami Coach Jim Larrañaga said.
But in the second half, it seemed, Kansas could do no wrong.
After Braun stuffed a Miami shot, Agbaji missed a layup on the other end. But Jalen Wilson kept the ball in bounds for the Jayhawks, dealing it outside to Agbaji, who made amends with a 3-pointer that needed no assistance from the rim and that extended Kansas’ lead to 12.
“We weren’t very good the first half and played tight a little bit and couldn’t guard McGusty,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said. “And for whatever reason, the lid came off the second half and the intensity picked up defensively and then we had about two good plays turn into four, turn into eight, which turned into 16. That was about as well as we could play the second half.”
Throughout the tournament, Miami players had adopted the relaxed personality of Larrañaga, a septuagenarian known for his locker room dance moves and for leading George Mason to an unlikely Final Four appearance in 2006. Before tipoff, perhaps in homage to Miami’s reputation as a football school, the Hurricanes lined up for a simulated field goal.
“The most important thing — and I tell them this every day, and have since the tournament began — smile and stay loose,” Larrañaga said on the eve of the game. “Enjoy the moment. This should be a heck of a lot of fun.”
After the game, Miami players expressed a mix of pride in what they accomplished and disappointment that their journey had ended.
“Just being able to accomplish the things we did this year, to lose, it just hurts,” McGusty said. “We’ve done a lot,” he added. “We’ve gotten so close.”
Kansas, which will play Villanova next weekend in New Orleans, is a regular in the late rounds of the tournament.
The Jayhawks have played in 15 previous Final Fours, including three during Self’s tenure, and own the longest active streak of N.C.A.A. tournament appearances, with 32 straight. On Friday, Kansas surpassed Kentucky as the program with the most wins. But for a team with high expectations for itself, national titles have been elusive, with only one, in 2008, since Self took over as coach in 2003.
In a tournament that had been unfriendly to top-seeded teams, Kansas kept winning, though not dominating, at least not until late in the Miami game. The Jayhawks endured a closer-than-expected challenge from No. 9 Creighton in the round of 32 and outlasted No. 4 Providence on Friday even without much offense from Agbaji.
“He has labored offensively, I think in large part because of how people have defended him,” Self said of Agbaji after the game on Sunday. “And maybe we haven’t done a good job getting him the ball. But I know now after the way we played the second half, he’ll be full of confidence moving forward.”
The program still feels the sting of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, when the Jayhawks were ranked first in the final Associated Press poll. Many in Lawrence, Kan., where revelers poured onto Massachusetts Street to celebrate on Sunday, believed a championship that year had been possible.
“I never felt like this team was the best team in the country this year,” Self said before the game with Miami. “I felt like in ’20, that was the best team in the country.”
But this year’s team, whose youngest starters are redshirt sophomores, has proved resourceful and experienced. The recent emergence of Martin, a postseason bench scoring threat who dealt with injuries earlier in the season, has added to a sense that winning a championship is possible.
“This year’s team is different, totally,” Self said. “But I do think that this year’s team has the same chance to do as well just because they have a strong belief that they can accomplish anything. And it’s been impressive for me to watch them grow in that belief this year.”
Kansas’ next opponent, Villanova, was dealt a blow well before tip-off. The university announced Sunday that Justin Moore, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer, tore his right Achilles’ tendon on Saturday against Houston and would have surgery this week.
Kansas and Villanova will be joined in the Final Four by Duke, a two seed, and by either eighth-seeded North Carolina or 15th-seeded St. Peter’s, who will play each other later Sunday.