By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 30, 2014
INDIANAPOLIS — A team that had been surrounded by the aura of a special run lost out to a team making a special run of its own.
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A fadeaway 3-pointer by Aaron Harrison with 2.6 seconds remaining set it in stone. Tied 72-72, the Kentucky freshman launched a high arcing shot over Caris LeVert’s outstretched left arm that splashed through the net to keep the Michigan men’s basketball team from its second straight Final Four appearance.
According to the sophomore guard, it was the type of shot Michigan (28-9 overall) wanted to force Kentucky into. The Wildcats didn't get penetration, and they didn’t get open.
They relied on a miracle.
If there were basketball gods, then they had decided that No. 8-seed Kentucky, a team that ran the gauntlet by beating the best teams the Midwest Regional had to offer, would get the glory.
“There’s games that end right now where there’s officiating controversy or there’s some crazy thing that happened or your team just comes out and lays an egg,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That didn’t happen. It was an exciting basketball game.
“I think everybody walked around here and said ‘College basketball is a wonderful sport, and I loved watching these two teams play.’ ”
The 75-72 loss brought the second-seeded Wolverines’ season that saw an outright Big Ten title and a second consecutive Elite Eight appearance to a close.
Michigan’s frontcourt had finally met its match. The size of Texas couldn’t bring down the Wolverines and neither could the skill of Tennessee’s frontcourt. But the mix of size, skill and athleticism brought Kentucky (28-10) a big enough advantage that not even Nik Stauskas could compensate for.
The sophomore guard had the reins to the offense. He kept the Wolverines in the game with an explosive first half and used his court vision to find chances for teammates in the second. He finished with 24 points, but that couldn’t stop Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee.
“It’s never easy, especially when they get a decent amount of post touches,” said redshirt junior center Jon Horford. “They kept feeding them and feeding and feeding.”
The four Kentucky big men combined for 42 points and dominated Michigan on the boards and in the paint throughout the second half.
The four posed size mismatches for Michigan, prompting Beilein to move into a 1-3-1 zone defense early in the second half. The switch didn’t make much of a difference, though, as Kentucky continued its assault on the boards. The Wildcats collected 17 offensive rebounds and 35 total compared to Michigan’s 24.
The Wolverines handled Kentucky’s size respectably in half-court sets, but once the shot was up, Michigan was in trouble. Persistence on the glass helped Kentucky coach John Calipari’s team neutralize Michigan’s talent on the perimeter. The Wolverines were limited to a shot each possession, while the Wildcats were presented the luxury with two or three attempts per trip down the floor.
“Whether they were tipping it in or tipping it back, they were really doing a good job just keeping it alive on offense,” said fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan, who found himself in foul trouble for much of the game.
The teams traded blows early, each using its best asset to sock the other. Stauskas found himself with plenty of space to operate, and he alone provided Michigan’s firepower in the first half. He made his first three shots to give the Wolverines a quick 10 points before taking his game to the rim. He finished the half with 18 points.
Kentucky used its long and leaping size to attack Michigan with finishes on either side of the basket. The surprise was that it was Lee and not Randle responsible for the damage early on. Lee, who’s averaged 2.1 points per game this season, scored 10 points in the first half. He made five shots, all within a foot of the rim, to help the Wildcats erase a 32-22 Michigan lead to force a 37-37 tie at halftime.
“You can see the size disadvantage was obvious out there,” Beilein said. “But we still felt we could find a way to win with a few other breaks.”
Michigan was able to create opportunities late in the shot clock and stayed within arm’s reach of John Calipari’s team in the final minutes. Twice, the Wildcats tried to break away from Michigan in the half — right out of the halftime break and again with seven minutes remaining. They held a 62-55 advantage with 6:31 to play, but Michigan had plenty in the tank.
Giving Kentucky a taste of its own medicine, the Wolverines scrapped for three offensive rebounds in their final possession of the season with under a minute left, culminating in a Morgan layup to tie the game, 72-72.
A possession later, it was over.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing in a basketball game,” said sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III.
Michigan had won its last nine games that were decided by five points or less, but the good fortune ran out.
“That’s basketball. Sometimes that ball’s gonna go in for you, sometimes it can hurt you and go in for them,” Robinson said. “I just look back on beating Purdue when I hit the buzzer-beater and we were on the other end of it and how excited we were. That was them tonight.”
Along with Morgan, Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday afternoon may have seen the swan song of some of Michigan’s greatest talents.
The loss brings about the next phase in the Michigan basketball yearly cycle. Stauskas, Robinson and sophomore forward Mitch McGary will all be wooed by the NBA, and they’ll make their decisions in the coming weeks.
After being eliminated, Beilein reflected on coaching one of his most successful teams.
“It was so maintenance-free,” he said. “There wasn’t drama. There was just ‘Coach, we’re here to go to work.’
It was what I think coaches really get into coaching for, to have that opportunity to coach a team like this.”