Michigan’s luck in late-game situations finally runs out

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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 30, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan had been in these situations before this year. The endings, though, hadn’t gone like this.

The Michigan men’s basketball team has been lucky this season. According to coach John Beilein, the team has created its own luck and used such fortunes to come out victorious.

Sunday, inside Lucas Oil Stadium, that last-minute luck finally ran out. Of course, the Wolverines wouldn’t be in such a situation if it weren’t for their own play to begin with.

When fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan came to the bench with 19:35 left in the game with his third foul, Michigan could’ve folded. Losing their best interior defender and arguably best defender in general, the Wolverines could’ve let the game get away from them quickly.

Instead, the team persevered. With redshirt sophomore Max Bielfeldt and redshirt junior forward Jon Horford playing the ‘5,’ Michigan stuck around until Morgan returned nearly 10 minutes later.

It didn’t come easy, of course. With Morgan out, Kentucky continued what it had done up to that point — it drove to the basket, crashed the boards and got baskets right at the hoop off first shots or off second opportunities.

The four-headed monster of Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress produced 42 points and 25 rebounds, including 15 offensive ones.

Michigan couldn’t fight fire with fire. It didn’t have the ability and strength of Kentucky’s big men. It wasn’t going to work. That’s why, with Morgan out, the Wolverines went, at times, with an option that they love to play, despite the gamble involved in it.

“I feel like as a team, if we had a choice, we would play 1-3-1 (zone defense) 20 minutes a game,” Horford said. “Regardless of foul trouble, the team really likes playing 1-3-1. It’s very high risk, but it’s very high reward as well.”

When Michigan entered the style of defense with 13-plus minutes left in the game, the results were immediate.

A Horford block led to a fast break, resulting in a dunk by sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III. The next possession, a defensive play by sophomore guard Caris LeVert led to a dunk by Horford in transition to push the Wolverines’ lead to four points.

In the middle of the second half, without the heart of its defense on the court, Michigan could’ve allowed a few Kentucky runs to end its season.

But it didn’t.

“We just hung in there and hung in there and they got away from us a little bit,” Beilein said. “That shows what these kids have done all year long. When things are going well, they were pretty good at playing through it. And when people would make a run on them, we’re still good.”

That’s why when the Wildcats had the ball for the final possession after a four-shot long possession by Michigan, which ended appropriately with a tip in by Morgan, the Wolverines felt the game would go to overtime. Kentucky would miss a buzzer beater. The game and Michigan’s run of luck in the final seconds of games wasn’t about to end.

But then it did.

Even with LeVert draped all over him, Aaron Harrison drained a 3-pointer from NBA range with 2.3 seconds left.

“There’s nothing we can do about that,” Robinson said. “I thought Caris did all he could to contest that.”

In Beilein’s eyes, the sequence was exactly what he wanted on defense. With Kentucky as good as any team at getting into the lane and the risk of taking a charge so high, Michigan played contain defense and held Harrison behind the arc.

Beilein “would have been upset if someone got to the rim on us,” but Harrison didn’t. He rose up from deep and left enough time on the clock for sophomore guard Nik Stauskas to get a half-court shot off to save Michigan’s season.

And while the shot didn’t fall and the Wolverines’ late-game fortune and season came to an end, the team wouldn’t have wanted it to conclude any other way.

“If we have to go down,” Robinson said, “this is the way to go.”