by Thomas Wheat Hotchkiss
IU NCAA Final Four Student News Bureau
NEW ORLEANS – The game started well for Jeff Withey.
Kansas’ junior center beat Anthony Davis for the opening tip, leading to a layup from Tyshawn Taylor and an early Jayhawk lead. Seconds later, Withey violently spiked Terrence Jones’ driving attempt out of bounds.
While he pestered the Wildcats all night with his defense, his offense let the Jayhawks down in a 67-59 loss to Kentucky in the national championship game.
When the horn sounded, he was briskly marching down the tunnel in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and into the locker room with a stoic stare, the first Jayhawk off the floor.
For the second straight game, Withey neutralized a consensus first team All-American. Two nights after pestering Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger in the semifinals – holding him to just 13 points on 5-19 shooting – Withey held Davis in check. The National Player of the Year went scoreless in the first half, finished with six points and just one made field goal on ten attempts.
“We actually guarded (Davis) pretty good,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Jeff did a good job on him.”
Withey’s four blocks on Monday night gave him a share of the NCAA Tournament record with Davis, who had six blocks of his own. Their 31 rejections apiece in the 2012 event passed Florida center Joakim Noah’s 29 in 2006.
But on the offensive end, Withey appeared intimidated by Davis, often hurling up hasty shots to avoid the wrath of those long arms. Withey finished 2-8 from the field missed four layups, none blocked but most effected by Davis’ presence.
“I do not think any of us were rattled,” junior forward Kevin Young said. “We knew what they were capable of…if just a couple more possessions went our way, it could have been our game.”
Those few possessions could have been Withey’s misses. Withey’s botched layups helped the Wildcats out to a 14-point halftime lead.
“Definitely,” Withey said when asked if Davis’ presence caused him to rush his shots. “He blocked a ton of shots, he altered a ton of shots and he got rebounds.”
“I don’t know if it’s intimidation or just really the fact that he is that big,” senior guard Conner Teahan told reporters. “He’s like Withey – obviously more length or what not – but he’s coming off his man and blocking shots… you can’t take him out of there for the entire game.”
On a rare occasion when Withey found himself free from Davis, he still couldn’t convert. Early in the second half he botched an alley oop, clanging the dunk that would have cut the lead to ten off the back of the rim. The Kansas contingent of 70,913 in attendance let out a collective groan.
Kentucky also was able to get enough shooting from their guards to make up for Withey’s defense on Davis. Withey watched helplessly as six 3-point shots fell through the net from the Wildcats’ shooters, three of them from Doron Lamb.
“They have such great athletes,” Teahan said. “Lamb was able to hit some big shots. We did some bad things defensively going under or over ball screens on their shooters.”
And as the clock ticked down on the Jayhawk’s season, Withey watched from the bench. He sat most of the final seconds, as Bill Self opted for an extra shooter to boost Kansas’ comeback hopes. But there would be no comeback on this night.
“I’m very sad and disappointed,” Withey said in the locker room. “My heart hurts for the seniors.”
When asked to hearken back to his great start in the opening sequence, Withey was asked if he came out trying to make a statement.
“That was the plan,” he said. “But it didn’t work too well.”