Michigan Beaten at Its Own Game as Kentucky Sends U-M Home in 2014 Elite 8

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

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In a thrill-a-minute Elite Eight game as good as any in NCAA history, Michigan's players and coaches had to figure it was going to come down to the final shot.

The Wolverines had a plan for how to make that basket, something they'd done numerous times to get to this point.

But stopping that shot?

Michigan's bid for back-to-back Final Fours came up one defensive stop short Sunday, falling 75-72 to Kentucky on Aaron Harrison's three-pointer with 2.6 seconds left.

It was the shot the Wolverines wanted the Wildcats to take; they just didn't expect it to go in.

"The way that this game got to this point...it was all about dribble penetration" for Kentucky, Michigan coach John Beilein said during the postgame press conference streamed live on NCAA.com. "We weren't going to let them beat us there. Make them score over you, and he did."

A season that saw Michigan hit nearly every big basket in a clutch moment ended in a spell of irony, as its own expectations and offensive overconfidence contributed to defensive breakdowns at critical moments.

The Wolverines won the Big Ten by a solid three games this year by shooting effectively (especially from outside) and taking advantage of soft defense, overwhelming opponents with its ability to score in so many ways. And that's how their season ended, as well.

Kentucky shot 53.4 percent (31-of-58) on Sunday, getting a ton of points in the paint on drives and offensive rebounds, but the Wildcats also made seven of 11 three-pointers. Four of those were by Harrison, all in the final eight minutes, eight seconds of play. He'd been ice-cold until then, but once he hit, he couldn't miss.

Nor could Michigan bother to cool him off.

John Calipari recognized this. It's why, after Michigan fouled with 10 seconds left to force Kentucky into a restart on its final play, Calipari didn't look worried. It's because he knew what the Wolverines would do defensively, and he had the answer.

His instructions during Kentucky's last timeout, with 27 seconds left? "Aaron, just step back and shoot a deep three, they won't guard you," Calipari said during the postgame press conference on NCAA.com.

Michigan's Caris LeVert was actually pretty tight on Harrison, just not tight enough to prevent the shot.

The Wolverines weren't a bad three-point defensive team this season, entering Sunday's game allowing opponents to shoot 31.2 percent from outside. That ranked 35th in Division I.

But as it did with Harrison, Michigan had a tendency this year to witness an opposing player get hot from outside...and do little to change that.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 30:  Glenn Robinson III #1 of the Michigan Wolverines reacts after being defeated by the Kentucky Wildcats 75 to 72 in the midwest regional final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2014
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Indiana's Yogi Ferrell went 7-of-8 from outside in a Feb. 2 win. Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble nailed six of 10 threes in a Feb. 8 victory, all in the first half. And while Wisconsin's Ben Brust struggled to connect in the Badgers' 13-point win on Feb. 16, going 1-of-7, the rest of Wisconsin's starters went 6-of-8 on threes.

And let's not forget the 2013 NCAA title game, otherwise known as Luke Hancock's coming-out party, when the Louisville swingman went 5-of-5 from outside, including four in a two-minute span late in the first half that erased Michigan's 12-point lead.

Kentucky ate Michigan up on the boards, yet because of the Wolverines' own ability to make big shots and come up with clutch plays on offense, they were still in position to win at the end. Jordan Morgan's tip-in with 31 seconds left came after the Wolverines managed three offensive rebounds on that possession.

But on the other end of the floor, where Kentucky had seemingly been scoring at will for the entire second half, Harrison's game-winner marked five straight shots that Kentucky made over the final 4:22.

Learning from a loss is one of the most fundamental coaching tactics in the book, yet it can be hard sometimes to drive that point home with young players. But this will make two years in a row that Michigan's season has ended because it couldn't stop its opponent down the stretch.

The Wolverines should return mostly intact for the 2014-15 season, and with several players now having gone through this bit of finality twice, one can only hope the lesson will become ingrained in their development moving forward.