NEW ORLEANS — Danny Manning was one of the 69,423 in the Superdome for the 2022 men's basketball championship game between North Carolina and the Kansas program he powered to a title.
But the Tar Heels, much more so than the Jayhawks, were the team that came into the title round with the feel of Manning's 1988 underdogs. North Carolina endured its share of ups and downs in 2021-22, losing nine regular-season games and landing a No. 8 seed on Selection Sunday — a seed that only once in NCAA Tournament history had ever won the national championship.
The 1988 Jayhawks, dubbed Danny and The Miracles, were a No. 6 seed but went into the postseason with a similar resume as this North Carolina bunch. Their run to the title game bore similarities to the 2022 Tar Heels, too, like the otherworldly play of a big man central to the championship pursuit.
Armando Bacot filled the Danny Manning role nicely for North Carolina, becoming the first player in March Madness history to post six double-doubles with 15 points and 15 rebounds on Monday.
In a city that hosted two dramatic North Carolina title victories, in a stadium that saw the utmost Kansas heartbreak with Hakim Warrick's block of Michael Lee, the Jayhawks exorcised Final Four demons.
It didn't take a miracle, either; just a full-team effort — and the biggest second-half comeback in national championship game history.
"I was in the locker room telling the guys, just believe in yourself, have fun with it," David McCormack said, describing his efforts to rally the Jayhawks from a 15-point halftime deficit.
McCormack scored the final four points in the 72-69 Kansas win to cap an All-Tournament performance. If this Jayhawks championship is to have a signature player remembered for decades a la Manning in '88, or an iconic bucket like Mario Chalmers' shot in 2008, McCormack may be the one.
The first of his two decisive baskets came when he rebounded his own miss and then powered up in the lane to put Kansas ahead by a point. Then with about 23 seconds remaining, he effectively iced the win with a beautiful baby-hook shot over Brady Manek.
McCormack was a steadying force when Kansas needed it most.
"He was telling me, like, keep your head up, keep going, we'll be all right. I was, like, man, I don't know if I've ever been here before, " Christian Braun laughed. "Down 15 in a national championship game, I definitely never been there."
But Braun stepped up amid the unknown, posting a double-double of 12 points and 12 rebounds. He capped a stellar defensive night contesting Caleb Love's would-be game-tying 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
As Braun's critical second half suggests, this national championship really shouldn't be attached to any one player or single play; Not when Ochai Agbaji set a Final Four record by going 6-for-6 from 3-point range in the semifinal win over Villanova, then set the tone in the title with the first basket against North Carolina, his seventh consecutive made triple.
The tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Agbaji scored 12 points against North Carolina and made several key defensive plays to make good on his quest to redeem Kansas' lost 2020.
Then there was Dajuan Harris with three steals and some harassing pressure that head coach Bill Self credited for igniting a fast second-half start.
"[A 15-point deficit] went to nine like that," Self said with a snap of his fingers. "And it was anybody's game. It was special how Juan triggered that to start the second half."
With Harris leading the defense, Remy Martin emerged to pace the offense. A former three-time All-Pac-12 honoree, Martin left individual stardom at Arizona State to pursue a team championship with Kansas.
The uncanny scoring ability that made him a standout Sun Devil shined for the Jayhawks on the biggest stage, as he drained four 3-pointers off the bench en route to 14 points. Martin also made a critical block in the second half.
"This year has been a tough year individually for me, just injuries and just hard to find a groove sometimes," Martin said. "These guys have been amazing throughout the whole process. They've always kept me going, and they always gave me confidence.
"I couldn't ask for a better group."
And even though the contributions of Mitch Lightfoot, the super-senior reserve forward, didn't produce big numbers he still played a part. His value to the national championship was made abundantly clear in the celebration with Lightfoot holding the trophy and his teammates around him.
When Lightfoot was asked postgame about ending a long Kansas as a champion, Self wiped away tears.
With the most famous frontman in Jayhawks history watching on, this KU bunch delivered on a championship with a true ensemble performance.
"This is the 2022 miracle," Self said. "I think they'll enjoy it more not having a name attached to it because that's how we played all year long."