Things didn’t look good for Kansas in the first half Monday night in New Orleans. The Jayhawks took a quick 7-0 lead in the national championship game against North Carolina, but by the time the first half concluded, Kansas was down 40-25 and stunned.
If Kansas — the only No. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament to make the Final Four — was going to defeat UNC — only the fifth No. 8 seed in history to reach the national title game — it was going to need to produce the biggest comeback in championship game history.
Led by sophomore Jalen Wilson and four other Jayhawks to score in double figures, they did just that. After being down 15 points at halftime, Kansas came back to win, 72-69. After outscoring Carolina 47-29 in the second half, the Jayhawks claimed the fourth national championship in program history, and second under head coach Bill Self, who also led Kansas to the title in 2008.
Things didn’t look good in the first half for Wilson either. He entered the game as the team’s third-leading scorer (11.0 points) and leading rebounder (7.5), and hit two early free throws to give Kansas its 7-0 lead. But he struggled mightily from there, missing four layups and connecting only on a tip-in in the first half. He entered the break with just four points.
But the Denton, Texas, native came out in the second half more like himself. Three minutes in, he finally made a layup, and followed that up a minute later with another made layup plus the foul. He hit the free throw to cut the deficit to seven, and had regained his confidence.
With just over six minutes to go, after Kansas had already erased the 15-point hole, Wilson hit a big 3-pointer to give the Jayhawks a four-point lead. He finished with 11 points in second half, and tied for the team lead with 15 on the night.
In a way, Monday night mirrored Wilson’s 2021-22 season. Just days before Kansas’ first game in November, Wilson was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. He ended up being suspended for the first four games of the season, and later granted a diversion in the DUI case for which he completed a rehabilitation program.
The off-the-court issues led to on-court struggles. But he turned it on in the second half of the season, scoring in double figures in nine of the last 11 regular-season games. By persevering through the struggles on the court and off, he hopes he inspires others.
“I didn’t stop fighting, I didn’t stop believing, I kept going,” he told KUsports.com in March. “To anybody going through adversity of any kind, I’d say just embrace it. Don’t run from mistakes or hard times because I think at the end of it is definitely something special.”
One of the first things Wilson did in the first few days after his arrest was lean on his family and friends from back home, including his pastor, whom he talked to for two hours one night. As the year 2021 came to a close, despite the tough times he had endured, Wilson praised God.
“I love the life God has blessed me with and the people he has around me every day,” Wilson wrote on Instagram on Dec. 31. “His plan is beautiful and I wouldn’t change a single thing. I pray this new year is full of even more blessings and new opportunities.”
Throughout the run to the title and his time at Kansas, Wilson — who has “FEAR” tattooed on the inside of his right bicep, and “GOD” on the inside of his left bicep — has shared about his faith in God:
And it seems only fitting that after such a rollercoaster season for Wilson that he would lead Kansas to a national title over North Carolina, a school he came close to attending. He originally committed to Michigan, but was released from that commitment when the coach left, so he subsequently went on recruiting visits to KU and UNC, accepting the offer from Kansas in June 2019.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” Wilson said Sunday. “I just had texts last night talking about this was my top two coming out of high school and stuff like that. It’s just how God works. He puts you in weird positions like this — and fun positions.”
Wilson said Kansas was always his first choice, and that God led him there with the second chance to commit.
“This is the place that I always wanted to go to in my heart,” Wilson said. “I knew that I always wanted to be here. When I had the second opportunity to come here, I just felt like it was God giving me the right opportunity to come here and live out my dream as a kid, and now it’s all paying off.”