Another classic, another win for Kentucky

Mar 30, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats players celebrate on the court after defeating the Michigan Wolverines in the finals of the midwest regional of the 2014 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium.  

INDIANAPOLIS – It ended with the winning team in a pile on the floor — voluntarily, at least for those not tackled by Julius Randle — and the losing team standing by its bench in a stunned silence. So many times the losing team is slumped over and the winners are standing triumphantly, but it was the other way around in the seconds after Kentucky beat Michigan on Sunday.

Maybe neither side could believe it.

The Midwest Regional final was that good, and it came down to the final 2.6 seconds. That’s when Aaron Harrison made a 24-foot-jumpshot with Caris Levert’s hand in his face to break a tie and give Kentucky a 75-72 win. After a timeout, the best Michigan could get was a halfcourt shot from Nick Stauskas — the way Stauskas had been going, no one exhaled — at the buzzer that missed, sending a Kentucky team that’s getting better by the minute to next week’s Final Four.

Kentucky trailed by 10 in the first half but tied the game at halftime. Michigan was controlling the game with 10 minutes left before Kentucky put together an 11-0 run to go up, 62-55, with 6:31 left. That lead lasted exactly 6:04 before Jordan Morgan tied the game at 72 with 27 seconds left on a tip-in, the fourth shot of the Michigan possession.

"They weren’t going to go away and neither were we," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "And whoever had the ball last was going to win it."

Back and forth they went, shot for shot and punch for punch. There were seven ties and three lead changes, the third on Harrison’s bomb that came both after Kentucky called timeout and after Michigan had used its final foul to give with 10 seconds left. It was Michigan’s patience, precision and 3-point shooting vs. Kentucky’s athleticism and Randle’s bullying until the very end, when it came down to what looked like perfect defense but was an even better shot by Harrison, who could only smile as it dropped through the net and Michigan rushed to call timeout.

Randle chased Harrison all the way to the other end of the floor after the timeout, putting him in a bear hug.

"I wasn’t really sure how much time was left," Harrison said of the shot. "But I knew that it wasn’t that much time, so I just tried to take the best shot I could take. And it fell."

"Seeing my teammates so happy and running toward me, it’s the best feeling in the world."

This Kentucky team both coming together and feeling good about itself remains a scary proposition for the rest of the field.

That message has been delivered over the last seven days, starting last weekend when Kentucky ousted Wichita State. These Wildcats run the floor and get to the rim with ease. Michigan knew that, still mostly couldn’t stop it — and still has every right to think it was good enough to win the game.

There were so many dunks — Kentucky seems to get them effortlessly, and Glenn Robinson III and Morgan each had impressive ones for Michigan in the second half — and so many big shots even before the last one. Michigan’s final full possession, when Levert had hustled twice to keep the possession alive and both Stauskas and Derrick Walton missed good looks for the lead, summed up the way the Wolverines kept fighting even when it looked like the game might be slipping away.

Randle didn’t get every rebound; it just seemed that way. He did get 11 rebounds to go with his team-high 16 points, though, and Kentucky won in part because it had a 35-24 advantage on the glass and a 46-36 edge in points in the paint. It was Randle’s aggression that helped Kentucky quickly erase a 32-22 deficit early. The Wildcats are so deep, so big and so good that 6’9 freshman Marcus Lee, who hadn’t scored since Feb. 22, pitched in with 10 points and 8 rebounds because Willie Cauley-Stein had to sit with an ankle injury.

Tall ball won.

"A great college basketball game," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Both teams played really well. Even the people sitting in the highest seats got their money’s worth today."

The kids won, too. Lee made it seven freshmen to play for Kentucky; five start, and Dominique Hawkins didn’t score but did play important defense on Stauskas in the second half after Stauskas scored 18 in the first half. At not quite 19 and a half, Randle is a 6’9, 250-pound fully-grown man. Michigan mixed in some zone in the second half to keep Kentucky from getting to the basket; the Wildcats answered by making shots and getting enough rebounds to force Beilein back to man-to-man.

Runs, dunks, blocks, unlikely heroes and storylines; this game had it all. Morgan is a fifth-year engineering student who held his own against Kentucky’s McDonald’s All-Americans. Michigan has future NBA players, too, and Robinson looked like one in the second half, when he scored 10 of his 14. Stauskas finished with 24. Walton was giving up at least five inches and probably 30 pounds to Kentucky’s Harrison Twins but showed no fear in attacking them; if Walton and Michigan had gotten one more shot to drop, everything might be different.

That’s March.

In the end, it was just basketball — and nothing was decided until the final seconds. For the third straight game against a Final Four team from a year ago, Kentucky roared back from a deficit and played its best basketball down the stretch.

"I hate to say this, these guys play better when they’re down and I don’t know why," Calipari said. "They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their necks. And they want to win."

 
"They have a will to win. Each of those games we got down and all of a sudden we’re down most of the game and we come back and win it at the end. And somebody’s got to make a play, which means they can’t be afraid of missing a shot."

All three games were for the ages.

It’s hard to say if either team would have had legs left for overtime Sunday. Michigan surely would have liked to find out, but Harrison’s shot took care of that.

Both deserved a chance to move on and keep playing, but by virtue of making the last huge play in a game that had a bunch of them, Kentucky gets it.

Both, too, deserved a standing ovation.