Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 3/24/12
ST. LOUIS In the moments after he reached Kansas' locker room at halftime, senior guard Conner Teahan approached junior center Jeff Withey with a challenge that helped extend Kansas' season of overachievement. By that point, Withey had collected seven blocks against No. 11 seed N.C. State six more than anyone else on the floor and two fewer than his season high. Go get seven more, Teahan told Withey, the same player whom coach Bill Self criticized in recent days for his lack of aggression. Go get seven more, Teahan continued, because those frustrated Wolfpack shooters can't find a way to move around you. For Kansas, this NCAA tournament run has taken on an identity of survival through any means possible. On Friday, the second-seeded Jayhawks edged the Wolfpack 60-57 in the Midwest Region semifinals at the Edward Jones Dome by being neither dominant nor impressive against an inferior team. But no Jayhawks player better displayed the grit required to advance in this messy month than Withey, who finished with eight points and a season-best 10 blocks one shy of the NCAA tournament record set by LSU's Shaquille O'Neal in 1992. Consider what that contribution means. When watching Kansas, it's easy to take national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson's production for granted. Night after night, the Kansas junior forward nets impressive numbers as he did Friday by scoring a game-high 18 points and gathering 15 rebounds. Yet, Withey's performance against the inspired Wolfpack was an example of the complementary efforts needed to keep the season alive for a Kansas team that isn't as versatile or as deep as recent years. On Sunday night, the Jayhawks experienced a similar close-call when they rallied to beat scrappy 10th-seeded Purdue in Omaha, Neb. As Kansas learned both then and Friday, sometimes winning ugly is necessary. Sometimes, winning in ways that aren't expected is the most rewarding of all especially when promised a chance to play another day. "My role is to be a defensive stopper," said Withey, who combined for 11 points and seven blocks in Kansas' NCAA tournament victories over Detroit and Purdue. "The last couple games, I wasn't doing what I was supposed to. It feels good to be able to come back and be able to play defense. That's what I do. It felt great to get back in that rhythm." Good thing Withey felt he was in a zone, because his team sure wasn't for most of Friday night. Like Sunday's game, Kansas failed to assert itself against a group with far less talent. The Jayhawks limped through another slow start, falling behind 12-3 in the opening minutes. And even after recovering, Kansas allowed N.C. State to erase a six-point deficit with 3:31 left and cut the Jayhawks' lead to one after a dunk from senior guard C.J. Williams with 1:21 remaining. As a result, there is reason for Kansas to pause. The Jayhawks will face an elite team in top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday with a chance to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2008. Yes, Tar Heels sophomore guard Kendall Marshall's status is questionable because of a broken right wrist. (He did not play during North Carolina's 73-65 overtime victory over No. 13 seed Ohio on Friday.) But even if Marshall doesn't see the court, Kansas must play with an edge that has been lacking since taking the floor of an eventual loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals on March 9. Make no mistake: The Jayhawks have overachieved for much of the year. This could be Self's best coaching job in his nine seasons in Lawrence. He must be credited for guiding Kansas to its eighth consecutive Big 12 Conference regular-season title. The Jayhawks will have much to remember from this season. However, Kansas seems to be playing of fumes of late despite all its previous success. The victory Friday like the one over Purdue inspired more relief than confidence. March is about surviving and advancing, no doubt, but the Jayhawks must improve their intensity if they want to go further. "We're not as deep as we were in previous years, so we're not going to win by scoring," Robinson said. "So we've got to strap up on the defensive end. That's what we've got to live off of." That's how Kansas advanced Friday, and Withey was the main reason why. He entered the game eager to prove himself after Self had sharp words about his defensive effort in recent contests. Withey's improvement against N.C. State was dramatic in the first half. The sight of him extending his lanky body and altering shots inspired others in the Kansas locker room at halftime to push him on. "Try to get a triple-double," Robinson recalls telling Withey. Withey fell short of that goal, but his contribution was another sign of the danger he presents to Kansas' opponents when he is strong. There's no doubt that Robinson attracts attention on both sides of the floor. But sometimes, winning in March happens because of unlikely reasons. On this night, Withey allowed the Jayhawks to survive once again.
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