There was no waving wheat in celebration of another Kansas Jayhawk victory Friday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, site of NCAA South Region semifinals. Instead, at least half of the crowd estimated at around 30,000 sat stunned as the Michigan Wolverines literally grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat with an improbable 87-85 victory over the Jayhawks, eliminating Kansas from the 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship field.
This was a game Kansas should never have lost. Period…fini. This is not to say that No. 4-seeded Michigan should not or could not have beaten the top-seeded Jayhawks. Obviously, the Wolverines were more than capable of handling the other Big Blue, but with leads of 14 and 10 points at the under-seven minute and under three-minute marks, respectively. it appeared that only a total collapse on the part of the Jayhawks could have turned the tale for the young and refuse-to-die bunch from Michigan. And guess what? That is exactly what took place.
Kansas senior guard Elijah Johnson, who has been the object of criticism most of this season because of his erratic, error-prone play, drained a three-point shot with under seven minutes remaining in the game to give the Jayhawks what, at the time, looked like a reasonably safe lead heading down the stretch. Over the next six and a half minutes, though, the Jayhawk offense went into automatic pilot, or so it appeared.
Meanwhile, the guys in maize and blue refused to quit and continued working hard. With under a minute to go, the Wolverines had outscored the Jayhawks 19-8 and were within three points when Johnson was fouled and awarded a one-and-one bonus opportunity that could have sealed the win and shut off the Michigan’s miracle comeback.
Woulda…shoulda. coulda. Johnson, who his coach had openly criticized in a halftime inverview for what Bill Self termed a couple of “bonehead plays,” missed the front end of his one-and-one free throw attempt, thus giving Michigan and, particularly, Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke, the sliver of hope needed to equal the score, which Burke did with a 25-foot three-point shot that hit nothing but net and ended up changing the entire course of the game.
The Jayhawks still had four seconds left, more than enough time to set up a scoring play to win the game, but sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe’s straight-on shot from about 21 feet clanked off the front rim. In overtime, the momentum shift stayed with Michigan as the Wolverines opened up a five-point lead at 87-82 with 52 second left on the game clock. Johnson hit a three-pointer to narrow the Michigan lead to a single possession. But after Kansas got a defensive stop on the ensuing Michigan possession, forcing the Wolverines into a shot-clock violation, the Jayhawks were unable to execute what would have been a game-winning three-point shot at the buzzer.
Kansas’ final possession had a lot of fans shaking their head and wondering what the Jayhawks were thinking. Given what resulted in a free timeout with which to set up a controlled play because of the officials checking the monitor after the 35-second clock had expired on the Wolverines to see exactly how much time should be left on the clock, Self called for a play that had Johnson drive to the basket and, if the shot wasn’t there, to kick it out to a three-point shooter to take the final shot.
Johnson made the penetration to the bucket, then turned and fired the ball into the backcourt to Tharp, who was out of position and forced to take an off-balance shot that missed. Game over. It appeared that Johnson could have attempted a lay in at the basket, and perhaps drawn a foul or even an added free throw had the ball somehow found itself into the basket. Either way, that would have been a higher percentage shot that kicking the ball out to the perimeter for a desperation three.
Self said after the game that he had asked his seniors during the team’s final timeout in overtime what they wanted to do. There was no hesitation, he said, they wanted to go for the three points and the win and not just settle for a tie. Good or bad decision? That will be debated for weeks and months to come, but the brutal fact is that Kansas allowed itself to be placed in that untenable position at the end.
“Coach give me the ball to make a play,” Johnson said. “And I don’t know. I could have took the shot. But I passed it up.”
In his post-game comments, Self said games usually come down to one or two possessions, This game, however, came down to five, he said, and none of them went Kansas’ way.
The Jayhawks’ game plan was largely geared around stopping Burke, cut off his driving lanes and force him to score from the perimeter. Kansas had a definite size advantage inside, and the Jayhawks wanted to pound the ball inside and exploit the Wolverine’s four-guard defensive weakness in trying to matchup with the Jayhawk bigs in the paint. What Self and Company did not count on was Michigan freshman center Mitch McGary scoring 25 points with seven-foot Jeff Withey, one of the premier shot blockers in the country, defending him.
This was only the second time all season that Kansas lost after leading the game at halftime. It also was one of the few times all year that the Jayhawks’ opponent won the rebound battle. The much smaller Wolverines held their own on the boards and ended up outrebounding Kansas 38 to 35 and, critically, 14 to seven on the offensive glass, resulting in easy put backs.
The underdog Wolverines gave Kansas, which ended the season with a record of a taste of its own medicine in pulling out the victory at the very end. Kansas won several games this season in which the Jayhawks had to come from behind late to preserve the victory. On this day, however, the tables were turned, and the Jayhawks were forced to experience what it feels like to give away a game in which they were in complete control for 90 percent of the game, only to lose at the very end.
Said Johnson, who unfortunately will wear the goat collar for this loss, even though it should be viewed as a collective team collapse and not the doing or undoing of a single player or play: Toward the end, we kind of played a little softer, like we didn’t want to…I don’t know, I don’t want to say ‘make a mistake.’ I don’t know. I guess we’re trying to hold on the something, but we needed to keep playing.”
Because they didn’t keep playing, ironically, the Jayhawks’ 2012-13 season and journey through the NCAA tourney is now over. The nine-time defending Big 12 champions can take small solace in the fact that Michigan didn’t really win this NCAA South Region semifinal, the Jayhawks lost this game all on their own.
The bottom line, though, is that Michigan survives and advances, as the late coach Jim Valvano would say, and Kansas’ stellar season has come to a crushing close.