When Kansas players self-assessed their team before the season, they came to the realization that defense would be their ticket to success.
"We kind of tried to hang our hats on being a good defensive team, that's what we got to be, we got to be great defensively," said Tyshawn Taylor, the only returning starter from last season's 35-3 team. "In the past we just had so many weapons that could score from so many different spots, that if we weren't all the way in tune defensively, we could cover that up by making some shots.
"We knew at the beginning of the year with this team that it wouldn't be same."
Unyielding defense, some clutch scoring from Taylor, Thomas Robinson's inside scoring and rebounding plus Jeff Withey's shot blocking became a winning formula. The Jayhawks clamped down on top seed North Carolina Sunday in the Midwest Regional final and came away with an 80-67 victory in St. Louis.
Next stop, New Orleans. No. 2 seed Kansas (31-6) is in its 14th Final Four and in Saturday's semifinal the Jayhawks will face No. 2 seed Ohio State. The teams met in Lawrence in mid-December with Kansas taking a 78-67 victory.
For much of Sunday's game with the Tar Heels, there was little difference between the two teams. North Carolina, playing its second game without injured point guard Kendall Marshall, answered each time the Jayhawks built a modest lead.
After Robinson (18 points, nine rebounds) made two free throws with 11:52, Kansas took a 62-61 lead. The Jayhawks would never trail again but they didn't take control until just over three minutes remained.
Elijah Johnson worked a pick and roll with Robinson and freed himself for a 3-pointer from in front of the Kansas bench. When it went through the nets, it gave the Jayhawks a 71-67 lead with 3:09 remaining.
With just over two minutes remaining, Jeff Withey blocked North Carolina's John Henson. Taylor picked up the loose ball and had a break away. The Tar Heels had a foul to give and freshman Sterling White - who started in place of Marshall - tried to foul Taylor. He powered through the contact, then made a layup as White fouled him. He completed the three-point play with 1:59 remaining.
"It was a game of runs," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team shot 63.6 percent in the first half. "And we didn't answer the last one."
The Tar Heels didn't have a field goal over the last 5:43. In the second half, North Carolina shot 22.6 percent - a record for inaccuracy in the Tar Heels' 149-game NCAA Tournament history. Their 11.8 percent 3-point shooting (2-for-17) was the second worst in school history for an NCAA game.
Kansas' game-closing 12-0 run went hand-in-hand with a defensive change. For the last 12 possessions, the Tar Heels couldn't solve KU's triangle-and-two defense - a strategy that the Jayhawks have used with success of late.
"We switched our defenses up and went to a triangle and two and it confused them a little bit," Taylor said.
"We were able to keep the ball out of their bigs hands and take away their two shooters," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who is now 2-5 in regional final games. "And the thing about it is, you got to rebound out of it. And you know, they're a great rebounding team, but I thought we rebounded the ball as well as we have in a long time."