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College Basketball

David McCormack Earned That Twine

David McCormack cuts down the net
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There were several different moments throughout Monday night’s National Championship Game that I, at the time, thought would stand out as historically important turning points, only to see them washed away like sandcastles. Every statement play was answered by one from the other team, a punch-counterpunch that lasted right up until North Carolina ran out of time.

The first of these would-be game-changers came with a little over five minutes remaining in the first half, UNC super senior Brady Manek drained back-to-back threes to give his team a six-point lead that ballooned to 15 by the break.

But Kansas would come back quickly out of the gates, tying things at 50 midway through the second. Then a three, a steal, and an and-one suddenly gave the Jayhawks a six-point advantage of their own, and all the momentum.

North Carolina, as they’ve done all tournament, was able to recover from what looked like a death blow. Typically quiet sophomore forward Puff Johnson came from out of nowhere to take over the game, scoring seven straight Heels points while making the little plays, too. I believed briefly that he would the one whose photo led all the recaps.

While the dramatic swings in this finale threatened to give us a lopsided or at least a clear-cut result for so much of its runtime, it instead in the final minutes revealed itself to be the best kind of basketball game—one in which the team that executes in the final moments gets rewarded with the trophy. And it was the Jayhawks’ senior center David McCormack who took ownership of the inside and carried his team to victory, deciding the game by becoming the last player in this college basketball season to put the ball in the basket, twice.

McCormack had dominated in the semifinal against Villanova, bullying the Wildcats down low to score 25 on 10-of-12 shooting. And while he wasn’t quite as effective in the title game, finishing with 15 on a rather inefficient 7-of-15, he made himself known by repeatedly rising up for the kinds of giant blocks and thundering dunks that earn slow-motion replays heading into commercial breaks.

It took McCormack some time to grow into this key role at Kansas, though. As a freshman, in 2018–19, he got some minutes due to an injury to Udoka Azubuike but only averaged 3.9 points per game. As a sophomore, with Azubuike back and winning Big 12 Player of the Year, McCormack again stayed in the background except against weaker competition. As a junior, he played well but had the end of his season and his potential NBA dreams wrecked by a broken bone in his right foot, which contributed to him scoring just five points in a second-round loss to USC. (His coach said last night that the injury has continued to bother him to this day.)

And even in the beginning of his senior year, he didn’t yet have the trust of the Jayhawk faithful. In the Kansas City Star this morning, Jesse Newell noted a play from an upset loss to Dayton that Kansas suffered back in November, in which, up one point with 20 seconds left, McCormack gave Dayton the window to steal the game when he lowered his shoulder for a charge while backing down a defender.

“David is as maligned a player that we’ve had, in large part because he can be a little bit of a tease sometimes,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after the game. “He’s 6-foot-10, built like a Greek god. But sometimes it doesn’t always go his way.”

But the ups and downs of his career have perhaps helped gift McCormack with a crucial dose of optimism, which he apparently helped impart on his frustrated teammates while they sat in the locker room down 40-25.

It’s a nice anecdote, but it never gets told if McCormack doesn’t accomplish what he did in the game’s final 90 seconds—what he couldn’t do in that early season Dayton affair. With Kansas down 69-68 after four straight Tar Heel points, McCormack received a pass inside with Manek defending him. McCormack rose for a hook, found back iron, but vacuumed up the rebound and tried again, this time powering through the double team augmented by Armando Bacot to take the last lead of the game.

And then when North Carolina couldn’t match at the other end, McCormack made the margin a little larger by taking advantage of Bacot’s injury-prompted exit. McCormack went back below the rim against Manek and won the battle on the first try. This basket led a scatterbrained UNC to huck up desperate threes in the final stretch, none of which found twine. McCormack had crafted the final turning point of the game.

Ochai Agbaji officially won the Most Outstanding Player award, but it’s hard to argue that anybody had more of an impact on Kansas’s championship run than McCormack. This doesn’t go down in the record books, but at least he did get perhaps an even cooler souvenir to go with the title. In the postgame, McCormack was wearing the net like a necklace, and his coach told him to keep it for good.