2022 Final Four: Ochai Agbaji’s return to All-American form has Kansas a win away from an NCAA championship

NEW ORLEANS — With win-or-go home stakes Saturday night on college basketball’s biggest stage, Kansas star Ochai Agbaji willed his Jayhawks to an 81-65 victory vs. Villanova in the Final Four and bought his team at least a few more days in the Big Easy. Agbaji’s 21 points sparked Kansas, the highest-seeded team still standing in this year’s NCAA Tournament, to its most complete performance of the postseason as its heads into the title game Monday vs. North Carolina.

Against the Wildcats, Agbaji, who had missed 10 of his 14 3-point attempts during the NCAA Tournament in his four previous games, knocked down his first 3-pointer … then his second … then his third and his fourth. He then knocked down his fifth, followed by his sixth before finally showing himself human. It was part of a laughably hot start for KU’s All-American who finished 6 of 7 from distance and 6 of 8 from the field for the game. It was the type of supernova star flash we’ve seen from him all season but had been – emphasis on the had-been – lacking in March Madness.

“In warmups and everything, I just felt relaxed,” Agbaji said. “Relaxed but still confident and ready to attack the game. Obviously my teammates were finding me tonight.”

Agbaji was averaging only 12.3 points per game during the NCAA Tournament before his Saturday night breakout. Kansas, in part because of his struggles, had found itself flirting oh so close with early elimination in a wide-open Midwest Region. A close-shave win over Creighton in the second round. A near-collapse vs. Providence in the Sweet 16. A first-half battle with Miami in the Elite Eight before an avalanche of scoring in the second half. Not so on Saturday. Agbaji set the tone early by draining all four of his 3-pointers in the first half, and KU strutted past Nova in a wire to wire 81-65 smackdown of the Wildcats.

“We shot it so well,” said KU coach Bill Self. “I think how well we shoot it in large part depends on Ochai in many ways, because he’s going to take the majority of the 3s. And the start he got us off on I think just gave everyone else confidence.”

Kansas made 13 of its 24 3-point attempts and shot 53.7% from the field to counter Villanova’s 13 made 3-pointers and its furious second-half comeback attempt that feel short. The 26 combined 3-pointers set a Final Four record. KU’s 13 3-pointers were nearly double its total from two wins a week ago.

“I think we came out ready to play,” Self said. “We couldn’t do much wrong early. I thought we played terrific.”

The Midwest Region of the bracket opened up beautifully for Kansas to allow it to make it to this point with early exits from No. 2 seed Auburn and No. 3 seed. No. 5 seed Iowa and biting the dust helped, too. So let’s not sugarcoat here: Kansas should have owned the region, and with ease. Instead, it survived and advanced, looking up until Saturday like a far cry from the No. 1 seed it earned.

Agbaji’s explosive return to All-American form, though, was a watershed moment as part of a KU level-up to devastating form. This Kansas team? It can absolutely win it all. With this Agbaji? It may do so on Monday in convincing fashion. When he’s throwing fiery arrows from all over the court, engaged on defense and pacing KU in the box score, the talent and balance of this Jayhawks team can wash over you like waves and swallow you whole if you’re not careful.

“Going down 10-0 and letting [Agbaji] get it going at the start – arguably one of the best shooters in the country – that was not the way we planned it,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright.

Saturday marked the 10-year anniversary of Kansas losing to Kentucky inside the very arena it dominated Villanova. Two days from now, he will face either Duke or North Carolina on the same court to potentially give Self his second championship. With KU’s All-American playing again at an All-American level, KU looks to be peaking at just the right time and one more win looks all the more possible.

“Och made big plays; everybody was pretty locked in on the job,” said KU wing Christian Braun. “In the Elite Eight, we were saying we come to Kansas for big games but we don’t come to Kansas to play in the Elite Eight. Then we win the Final Four game, we say we don’t come to Kansas to play in the Final Four. We come to Kansas to win a national championship. Everybody has that mindset. Everybody is saying ‘one more.'”

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