In the first half against Michigan, Kansas shot 68%, a blistering start unlike their previous two NCAA Tournament games. Going in, the scouting suggested that Kansas might be able to work well against the Wolverine defense and they did just that, scoring 34 points in the paint.
Michigan star Trey Burke was scoreless in the first half and the Wolverines had gone to the line only six times, hitting just two shots.
And despite all of that, Kansas led by only six points at halftime with a 40-34 score.
Kansas was able to work the ball inside on drives by Travis Releford and by positioning Jeff Withey and Perry Ellis down low. Kevin Young picked up scraps. Ben McLemore shot out of his slump. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. With one exception.
Elijah Johnson opened the game up with a flagrant foul against Mitch McGary, then committed a charge, his second foul in just over three minutes into the game. Seven minutes later, Johnson came back out to the floor, committed a dead ball foul and promptly went back on the bench with three. That left Naadir Tharpe at the point for most of the first half, and he performed well, dishing out five assists and playing in control.
In the second half, Kansas kept a comfortable lead for the majority of the game, matching Michigan runs with spurts of their own. Through most of the night, their lead hung around ten points. Kansas was able to rotate forwards in, getting quality minutes from Jamari Traylor and Ellis when Kevin Young picked up third foul and as Withey needed a breather (he was battling with the 6’10” 255 pound McGary all night).
And yet, Michigan stuck around. Ben McLemore committed two fouls in the span of a minute and a half, both of them caused by being out of position. He sat with four fouls with 8:39 left in the second half. Kansas had a 65-54 lead. McLemore finally returned with 3:47 to go in the second half, returning to a 70-60 advantage, but one in which Kansas had missed opportunities, hitting just two of eight shots while he was out.
With 2:53 left, a nice Kevin Young touch pass to Jeff Withey led to a big dunk and made it 72-62 and it felt like Kansas had it locked up. Kansas forced a miss on the Michigan possession, then got the miss after they rebounded the ball. Johnson took the ball up the court, but got trapped near the foul line. He tried to toss it back to Withey in the backcourt but overthrew him. Glenn Robinson III raced to the ball and dunked on the breakaway. Kansas started bringing the ball up after the basket, but Johnson took too long and by the time he was rushing to get it past halfcourt, he got caught changing directions and turned it over with a ten second violation.
Michigan scored on a layup to make it 72-66. But Kansas had the ball and Travis Releford hit two free throws to give them an eight point lead with 1:22 left.
And then Trey Burke happened.
Michigan rushed the ball up and at the first opening, Burke launched a deep three that brought the game within five points. McLemore missed a shot with 41 seconds left and Michigan took another three. After it missed there was a scramble for the ball and Robinson came away with it, getting a reverse layup in and pulling Michigan to within three points. Kansas got the ball in and ran some time off the clock, but Michigan waited until Johnson had the ball to foul. He hit both shots and KU had a five point lead with 21 seconds left.
After a Burke layup, Johnson went to the line with 12.6 second left and a 76-73 lead. Michigan had stayed out of foul trouble, so it was a one and one – and Johnson missed. Tim Hardaway Jr.got the rebound and gave the ball to Burke, who moved behind a screen to his left, and, from 30 feet out, nailed a three pointer to tie the game.
It was a big shot from a bigtime player and will be a big tournament moment for years to come.
But Kansas still had the ball but Tharpe missed a good look as time ran out.
In overtime, both teams traded the lead back and forth for three minutes, but Johnson missed a three pointer with 2:56 left that could have given KU a two point lead. The ball was in and out of the rim. Michigan got a putback from McGary that made it 85-82, then extended the lead to 87-82 after two free throws. Johnson answered with a three pointer with 47 seconds left.
Since they could get a stop and still have time to get another offensive possession, Kansas didn’t foul and Michigan took a timeout with 23.4 seconds and 14 on the shot clock. Burke took it inside after the timeout but Withey’s presence made him miss. McGary got the rebound off the backboard but Withey blocked his shot attempt and Michigan turned it over via a shot clock violation. Kansas had 9.4 seconds left to tie or win the game.
Johnson brought the ball up, and drove inside. After the game, Bill Self said the idea was to draw defenders in and dish it out to shoot an open three. What happened instead was Johnson was free and headed towards the basket. It appeared he’d have a layup or running jumper attempt open to him, but he made a pass outside to Tharpe who didn’t get a good shot off and the ball went off the front of the rim.
At one point, Kansas had a 68-54 lead. And they lost. McLemore didn’t take a shot in overtime after scoring 20 points. Burke was a star, scoring 23 points in the second half and overtime. His performance was similar to that of McLemore and Johnson in Kansas’s two games against Iowa State. Unstoppable.
Elijah Johnson will be the goat after this game, and he does deserve some of that. If he makes the front end of his one and one, Kansas likely wins with a two possession game and under 13 seconds to go. If he doesn’t throw the ball away to give Robinson the dunk, Michigan doesn’t get that momentum. His ten second violation immediately after was inexcusable. It also appeared that he had a layup on the last possession, but he may have been angled too far towards the backboard.
Regardless, he made the boneheaded fouls early and committed five turnovers without getting an assist. But the loss sticks with the team. McLemore sat at 8:39 and the KU offense looked slow, stagnant. They looked like the team we saw early in the season, with suspect half court execution and too many turnovers and bad shots. After the hot first half, they shot just 45% in the second half.
To an extent, though, there wasn’t much they could do. Usually, if you’re a coach, you’re okay with another team’s player taking a 25 foot three point shot if it’s partially contested. Burke hit that shot. Usually, you’re okay if they take a 30 foot shot on the move. Burke hit that shot, too. He was fearless and rose to the occasion. Kansas didn’t.
So the season ends. Kansas will lose four of their five starters to graduation and McLemore is 99.9% likely to enter the NBA draft. Kansas will have to replace that production. Gone is the incredible shot-blocking and shot-altering presence of Withey in the middle. Gone is Travis Releford’s solid defense and slippery moves in transition. Those two, and McLemore’s pure talent, are the hardest things to replace next year. Perry Ellis stepped up in the Big 12 Tournament and in limited time in the NCAA Tournament, so he’s a bright spot for next year.
But first, they have to shake off the shock of Friday’s loss.