By Michael Marot
INDIANAPOLIS: Michigan’s Caris LeVert sat at his locker with a stone-cold expression Sunday night.
He couldn’t believe Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison managed to get that 3-point shot just over his left hand. He couldn’t believe the ball actually went in, and, like just about everybody else inside the Wolverines locker room, he couldn’t believe this is how Michigan’s historic season would end — a few inches short.
“I felt like I touched it,” LeVert said after the Wolverines lost the Midwest Regional championship game 75-72 on Harrison’s 3-pointer in the closing seconds. “He hit a tough shot.”
Sunday’s finish was yet another blow for a program that has fallen just short so many times before.
In 1976, they lost the national championship game to Indiana — the last unbeaten team in men’s basketball. In 1993, they lost the title game when Chris Webber mistakenly called a timeout when the Wolverines had none. A year ago, Michigan lost the Big Ten title when Jordan Morgan’s last-second shot rolled off the rim in the regular- season finale. Three weeks later, Louisville beat Michigan 82-76 in the national championship game.
On Sunday, LeVert came within a fingertip of deflecting Harrison’s winning shot.
Instead, the ball dropped cleanly through the net, leaving Michigan (28-9) with only a half-court heave to force overtime. The shot from Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas wasn’t close, leaving last year’s national runner-up and this year’s Big Ten regular-season champs short one more time.
“It’s going to happen to you where you’re going to make the shot sometimes and it’s going to go against you sometimes,” Stauskas said.
Perhaps the cruelest irony was that until Aaron Harrison heated up late, it looked like the Wildcats (28-10) would win this game a completely different way — inside.
They outscored Michigan 46-36 in the paint and had nearly as many offensive rebounds (17) as defensive rebounds (18). Michigan finished with 24 rebounds, 14 on the offensive end.
Things went from tough to bleak just 25 seconds into the second half when Morgan went to the bench with his third foul. Kentucky wasted no time taking advantage, getting Julius Randle’s dunk, Dakari Johnson’s layup, a short runner from Randle and a putback from Alex Poythress all in a 99-second span to take a 45-39 lead.
Coach John Beilein refused the temptation to reinsert the foul-prone Morgan, and eventually the Wolverines steadied themselves and rebuilt a 55-51 lead. But the bigger, stronger Wildcats answered with an 11-0 flurry that included eight inside the paint to take a 62-55 lead.
When the Wolverines adapted by clogging the middle, Harrison took advantage from the perimeter and forced the Wolverines into chasing the rest of the night.
“Kentucky’s a good team, and when they’re hitting 3s, they’re tough to beat,” LeVert said.
The sophomore guard and his teammates got a firsthand look at just how tough.
First Harrison hit a 3 right in front of the Kentucky bench to make it a five-point game with two minutes left. After the Wolverines tied it on Morgan’s tip-in with 27 seconds left, Beilein wasn’t going to let the Wildcats get another point-blank look.
“The way that this game got to this point, even though James Young hit the two [3s] in the first half, was it was all about dribble penetration, playing off the penetration, getting the rebound above the rim,” Beilein said.
Coach John Calipari expected that strategy and advised Harrison during a timeout that if he stepped back to create space, he’d get a good look.
Harrison followed the plan, forcing LeVert to contest on the move — and he came up just a little short.