by Brian Burnsed
IU NCAA Final Four Student News Bureau
NEW ORLEANS–Jeff Withey is expected to alter shots. On Saturday, he altered the outcome of the Kansas Jayhawks’ season.
The Jayhawks’ junior center only mustered four points. He couldn’t amass more than eight rebounds. He didn’t dole out a single assist. He did, however, keep seven Ohio State shots from touching iron or nylon in the Jayhawks’ stirring 64-62 comeback win over the Buckeyes in the national semifinals.
None of those seven blocks were more essential to the victory than his ambush of a seemingly uncontested William Buford layup with 1:18 left in the game, and, perhaps, Kansas’s season. The block from behind preserved the Jayhawks’ fragile, one-point lead and led to an Elijah Johnson fast-break bucket five seconds later.
“The block on Buford was unbelievable,” said Kansas head coach Bill Self. “They had us. He turned two points for Ohio State into two points for us.”
While the block against Buford came in the pressure-laden, waning moments of the game, Withey’s efforts seventeen minutes earlier were equally vital to the Jayhawks win. Four times, Withey victimized Ohio State’s All-American forward Jared Sullinger. Three of those blocks came in a 65-second span early in the second half. Those three would rouse a weary crowd and sloppy teammates.
“Jeff’s defense definitely sparked our offense,” said Kansas junior forward Kevin Young. “Getting big blocks like that is something that we expect out of him. Once he starts doing that it gives us more energy to keep going.”
Ohio State led by as much as 13 during a first half and were up by nine before Withey’s defensive flurry against the 280-pound Sullinger. Though Withey yielded 45 pounds to the Buckeye behemoth, his slender frame refused to buckle. Each of the three blocks came after a bevy of Sullinger pump-fakes and bumps. Withey didn’t bite on the fakes or give the ground that Sullinger sought. With a wide base and arms raised high above his head, Withey flicked each of the efforts away with ease.
“He was just playing hard,” Sullinger said. “It seemed like he stepped up his defensive intensity,”
Sullinger shot a dismal 5 of 19 from the floor, and only mustered 13 points—four-and-a-half less than his season average. Most of those fourteen misses were altered or deflected by Withey’s outstretched arms.
“He’s a big guy; he’s a great offensive player,” Withey said. “It was definitely tough, but I think my length bothered him. I’ve covered big guys before. As long as my base is fine, my hands are a lot higher than his. That’s why I got those blocks.”
Each time Withey thwarted the Ohio State star, a noticeable jolt seemed to travel through his despondent teammates. Doubt became swagger and little more than three minutes after Withey’s block spree, the Jayhawks had completely eroded the Buckeyes’ nine-point lead. After a Johnson layup with 14:06 remaining, the game was tied for the first time since the opening tip. Ohio State players recognized that the Kansas center’s efforts were at the heart of the comeback.
“Stuff like that it energizes a team; it changes the momentum,” Ohio State sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas said. “Withey gets a block and it changes the momentum of the team. I think it did that for them to get on their run.”
Not only did the blocks invigorate a weary team, but they awoke a long-dormant crowd. Throughout first half, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome hummed softly rather than roaring as it had during much of the raucous contest between Louisville and Kentucky earlier in the evening. Jayhawks players said that the fans’ lethargy spilled onto the court until Withey stood up to Sullinger.
“We did feel like we were out in the middle of nowhere [on that court],” senior guard Conner Teahan said. “The more energy there is, the better we play.”
With the crowd—and the Jayhawks—suddenly alive, Ohio State grew flustered. They connected on a mere 24 percent of their shots in the second-half and were constantly wary of Withey, lurking somewhere in the lane, ready to pounce. Two of Ohio State guard Aaron Craft’s attempts were sent back by Withey, and he admitted he couldn’t adapt to the seven-footer’s defensive range.
“You know he’s down there; you just don’t know for sure how much ground he can cover,” he said. “That’s something that I didn’t adjust to. That’s on me as a player, and something I need to get a read for. He’s a great player.”
Withey’s display was of little surprise to his teammates. They saw him block 10 shots in their Sweet Sixteen win over N.C. State and count on him to cover for them when shifty guards like Craft slide into the paint.
“My teammates definitely look at me and see me as a protector,” Withey said.
On Saturday, he earned that moniker. He protected the rim. He protected the game.
He protected a season.