Thursday, April 3, 2014

Michigan 72 - 75 Kentucky (NCAA Tournament) (Indianapolis, Ind.) (No. 2,139)

On October 16, 2009, Coach John Calipari made a rousing speech to the Kentucky fans at his first Midnight Madness as the UK coach.  He ended with the following words:

My vision is one of celebrations and banquets; diplomas and banners; rings and parades. . .
. . . A return of this legendary program back to its rightful place atop the mountain of college basketball . . .
A vision that sees the you, greatest fans in all of sports once again puffing your chests and chanting in whatever language you choose, and however loudly you want to shout it, Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!

I've heard a lot of great speeches in my time, but none ever came true as vividly as this one.  Here's what Coach Cal and the UK program has accomplished since October 2009:

2 SEC Tournament Titles
2 SEC Regular-Season Titles
4 Trips to the Elite Eight
3 Trips to the Final Four

1 National Championship

And this season still isn't over.

Everything Calipari talked about -- celebrations and banquets, diplomas and banners, rings and parades -- a return to the top of college basketball -- it all happened, just like he said.

But of all the amazing things that have happened to UK fans since Coach Cal came to campus, the Cats' run through this year's tournament may be the most amazing of all.  A few weeks ago, I was convinced that UK's season was just about over -- that the Cats would lose to LSU in the SEC tournament and then quickly fold in the NCAA's.  The Cats had lost 3 of their last 4 games in the regular season -- including a 19-point loss at Florida in the last game of the year.  All of our high hopes at the beginning of the year seem to have turned to ash.  And then Coach Cal announced that he had implemented a "tweak" that would make the Cats play significantly better.  I didn't take him all that seriously, because what could you really do so late in the year?

But I was wrong.

Since the "tweak," the Cats have gone 6-1, and their only loss was by one point to Florida -- the best team in the whole country.  In the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament, they beat three of last year's Final Four teams -- something that had never been done before.  They also eliminated last year's national champion and last year's runner-up -- something else that had never been done before.  And they did it all despite falling behind by a significant margin for three games in a row, and despite losing a seven-foot center who is projected to play in the NBA next year.

And what I really can't get over is that they have never been satisfied.  To a large extent, they vindicated their season by becoming the only team all year to beat Wichita State.  But then they beat Louisville.  Now that was a legendary accomplishment -- one that UK fans would remember forever -- and one that ensured them a permanent place of pride in UK history.  I wondered if, after such a victory, they could be as hungry as a Michigan team seeking to win the national championship it almost captured last year.

It turned out that they could.  But it wouldn't be enough to match Michigan's intensity.  The Wolverines don't just win games by playing hard.  They win games because they are exceptionally skilled at shooting, passing, ball-handling, and all the other old school basketball skills thought to be lost.  I sometimes complain about teams that are too physical or who take the air out of the ball -- but I had no complaints about Michigan.  They play a wonderful style that is a joy to watch, and their game with UK could go into any textbook about fundamental play.  Here's what happened.

1st Quarter:  Michigan 20, Kentucky 19

As usual, the Cats got off to a slow start, falling behind 11-4 with 14:32 left in the first half.  But then, the Cats were sparked by Marcus Lee, a backup center who has played only 141 minutes all year -- significantly fewer minutes than Jarrod Polson or Dominique Hawkins.  Inserted into the game because of the injury to Willie Cauley-Stein, Lee had three put-back dunks in less than two minutes to help UK draw with two points of Michigan.  Lee finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds in only 15 minutes -- a stunning performance from a player who had been almost forgotten for most of the year, and a critical part of UK's success.

2d Quarter:  Kentucky 18, Michigan 17 (Game tied 37-37 at halftime):

With ten minutes left in the first half, UK was holding its own with Michigan.  But suddenly the Wolverines spurted away, thanks in large part to the Big 10 player of the year, Nik Stauskas.  Stauskas can actually do a lot of the stuff that Indiana fans like to believe their guys can do -- hit three's, make his free throws, make old-school scoop shots in close to the basket.  He has a wonderful instinct for the game, and no one on Kentucky could do much with him.  He scored 18 points in the first half, and he drove Michigan to a 32-22 lead with 5:10 left before halftime.  But the Cats quickly responded, thanks to two jump shots by Young and another dunk from Lee.  A few minutes later, Julius Randle hit a jump shot to tie the game just before halftime.

Once again, the Cats had fallen behind, and once again they had fought back -- ending the first half on a very impressive 15-5 run.  Was it possible, I thought, that the Cats could win without having to go all the way to the wire?

3d Quarter:  Michigan 18, Kentucky 16 (Michigan led 55-53 with 10 minutes to go):

UK continued to have momentum at the beginning of the second half, and soon had a 45-39 lead.  The Cats were punishing Michigan on the boards, and were piling up points inside the paint.  But then Michigan got hot, and the Wolverines went on a 16-6 run to give themselves a 55-51 lead.  with 11:27 left.  The Cats responded, however, with what I consider to be their best basketball of the season.  It started with a Dakari Johnson dunk to make the score 55-53 with 10 minutes left.

4th Quarter:  Kentucky 22, Michigan 17 (UK wins 75-72):

But it didn't stop there.  The Cats went on a 11-0 run -- Johnson's dunk, a jumper from Randle, a three-pointer by Aaron Harrison, another jumper from Randle, and a layup by Andrew Harrison.  With only 6:31 left in the game, UK had a 7-point lead -- the biggest lead the Cats had enjoyed in any game since they played Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Now, I thought, we are very close to the Final Four.

With 6:02 left, Glenn Robinson III had an open three-pointer in the corner for Michigan.  If he had missed it, and UK had gotten the rebound, the Cats could have put Michigan in a very deep hole.  But the shot was perfect, and the score was 62-58.

This marked the beginning of the last and greatest phase of the game.  By this point, each team had gotten a bead on the other.  Kentucky knew how to punish Michigan's inside defense.  The Wolverwines had adjusted to UK's desperate efforts to guard Stauskas, and were now using the rest of their weapons.  Over the next few minutes, with unearthly pressure on every pass, these two teams put on an amazing display of team offense (Michigan actions in italics):

4:47 left:  Jordan Morgan made an old-fashioned three-point play to shave the UK lead to 62-61
4:20 left:  Aaron Harrison hit his second three-pointer of the half:  65-61
4:01 left:  Morgan got loose for a dunk:  65-63
3:27 left:  Alex Poythress slipped through the Michigan defense for a layup:  67-63
3:04 left:  Glenn Robinson III responded with his own layup:  67-65
2:43 left:  Dakari Johnson made a layup for UK:  69-65
2:26 left:  Stauskas made two free throws:  69-67
2:00 left:  Aaron Harrison made his THIRD three-pointer of the half:  72-67
1:39 left:  Robinson hit ANOTHER three-pointer from the corner:  72-70

The teams had now combined to score on nine consecutive possessions, and they did not miss a single shot in that stretch.  It was glorious, flawless basketball, but it was extremely nerve-wracking to watch.  Could the Cats keep matching Michigan.

They could not.  On UK's next possession, the Cats were smothered by Michigan, and the shot clock expired while the Cats were still trying to figure out what to do.  Now Michigan had a chance to tie or take the lead with 59 seconds left.  Don't let them hit a three.  They sent Stauskas driving to the basket, but he missed.  Michigan got the rebound and now Stauskas was gunning from the corner with Poythress and one of the Harrisons flying at him.  Don't let them hit a three.  He missed, but Michigan had the rebound and Derrick Walton, Jr. was shooting a three-pointer from the top of the key.  Don't let them hit a three.  He missed, and now there was a wild scramble for the rebound, which was suddenly tipped in to tie the game at 72.

27 seconds left.

At least they didn't hit a three.

The Cats called time.  Remarkably, the Wolverines had only committed five fouls during the half, so they had a free foul they could use out on the floor.  They used it with 10 seconds to go, forcing the Cats to in-bound one more time.  This time UK did not call time.  Aaron Harrison in-bounded the ball, and seconds later he got it back from his brother.  He was standing out behind the arc, with just the smallest amount of space between himself and the Michigan defender.

I wanted the Cats to shoot a three for the win.  Friday night, Tennessee's chance to beat Michigan was lost when the Vols were called for charging with only six seconds left.  Saturday night, Arizona's best chance to beat Wisconsin was also ruined by a charging call.  I didn't want anything like that -- I wanted a nice, clean jump shot.  So I was happy when Aaron Harrison let fly from well beyond the arc.  And then I was thrilled as that perfect, perfect shot swished through the net.  Two point six seconds later, after a desperate heave from Stauskas, it was all over, and the Cats were going to the Final Four.

I've seen UK make the Final Four ten different times, but I've never seen a run like this one.  In 1998, UK closed out the NCAA Tournament with wins over # 3 Duke, # 10 Stanford, and # 7 Utah.  But the Cats beat Utah by nine points, giving us all a chance to breathe.  And besides, the Cats entered that tournament ranked # 5 themselves.

This time, the Cats entered the tournament unranked.  And here's how they got through the Midwest Region:

Kentucky 56, Kansas St. 49
Kentucky 78, # 2 Wichita St. 76
Kentucky 74, # 5 Louisville 69
Kentucky 75, # 7 Michigan 72

I can't remember UK ever winning three consecutive games of such importance where all the games were played at such a high level and all the games were so close.  Normally teams that pull upsets benefit from mistakes on the other side.  But I thought Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan all played about as well as possible -- and the Cats beat them anyway.

So now thousands of blue-clad fans are descending on the Dallas area to watch the Cats play on the biggest stage of all.  Can they keep up the magic?  Can they beat Wisconsin and win the chance to play for the title?  I don't know.  But I have learned not to doubt this remarkable group of players.

1 comment:

  1. These last three games have been so intense and draining that I've found myself having nothing left in terms of following the team this week as they traveled to Dallas and practiced. Surely, they're already down there, but I haven't much paid attention. And I typically like to experience all of that buildup.

    Anyway, point is, I was worn out, and I'm just a fan. But I'm going to be ready to go by Saturday night, and I imagine that the Wildcats will be, too.