By the end, they were all holding on, wishing for more time, wondering how it had all ended like this.
Jeff Withey, Kansas’ senior center, sat on the side of the Jayhawks’ locker room on Friday night at Cowboys Stadium, the area a distraught mix of sadness, frustration and despair. In the past hour, it had all unfolded. A stunning collapse to Michigan. An 87-85 overtime loss. A 2-minute, 52-second stretch that will linger in infamy, the latest NCAA Tournament disappointment for top-seeded Kansas.
“I’m in shock,” Withey would say. “It hasn’t hit me yet. I’m sure it will soon.”
Withey’s Jayhawks had the game won, a 10-point lead with just less than three minutes left. And then they gave it away. Or Michigan took it, or some combination of the two.
“This will go down,” Kansas coach Bill Self would say, “as one of the toughest games that obviously we’ve been a part of.”
Later, Self would say that games usually come down to one or two possessions. This game had come down to maybe five. And none went Kansas’ way.
With 2:52 left, Withey had slammed home an emphatic dunk that pushed the Jayhawks’ lead to 72-62. But Michigan would go on an 11-4 run, a stretch that included two turnovers by KU senior guard Elijah Johnson, and a missed free throw from Johnson that would have increased the lead back to four with 14 seconds left.
In the next moments, Michigan sophomore guard Trey Burke found himself open — but standing 28 feet from the basket. Self elected not to foul, saying there was too much time left on the clock, and Burke buried a game-tying three-pointer with four seconds left.
“He just shot it before anybody could get to him,” Johnson would say. “He shot it from deep.”
Kansas sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe had a three-point look that would have won it at the end of regulation, but the shot drew iron.
“That one felt good,” Tharpe said.
If Michigan had the momentum, it showed in the opening minutes of overtime. The Wolverines took an 87-82 lead, the collapse continuing until Johnson gave KU momentary life with a three-pointer with 45 seconds left in overtime.
Self elected to play defense, and the Jayhawks forced a shot-clock violation with 9.4 seconds left. And then Self asked his seniors what they wanted to do. They told him they wanted to go for the win, to take a three-pointer. But Self called for a play that would get Johnson going toward the basket, with an option to pitch it to freshman Ben McLemore on the wing.
McLemore, perhaps playing his last game at Kansas, scored 20 points, finally breaking out of his NCAA Tournament slump. But as Johnson drove to the basket, his momentum took him toward the baseline, a tough angle to get off a shot.
“Coach gave me the ball to make a play,” Johnson said. “And I don’t know, I could have took the shot. But I passed it up.”
Johnson flung the ball out to Tharpe on the wing. But his last-second chance caromed off the glass and rim and fell to the floor.
“I just tried to find a shot for myself,” Tharpe said. “But it wasn’t a good look. I just tried to get a shot up fast.”
In the silence of the locker room, reality set in. The Jayhawks had led 40-34 at halftime, shooting 67.9 percent in a half that was highlighted by Johnson's low blow on Michigan freshman Mitch McGary.
This was supposed to be a Kansas team immune to such March sadness. They had four seniors leftover from last year’s improbable run. And for two years, these seniors had staked their reputations on defense and toughness. They were the team that played the best in the final minutes. Not the team that folded. This was the team that won a ninth straight Big 12 regular-season title, and found ways to scratch and claw in victories at Iowa State and Oklahoma State.
Kansas lost for just the second time this season after leading at halftime. And the Jayhawks had let a 14-point lead slip away in the final seven minutes.
“I think we all felt like we had it,” McLemore said.
“We made some bonehead plays late,” said senior Travis Releford, who finished with 16 points.
“It’s gonna be a tough one to swallow for a long time,” Self said. “Those seniors gave their heart and soul to this place, and for them to go out this way”
Here it was, a Kansas team built on toughness and experience. And in the moments after a heart-wrenching exit, Johnson talked softly and had few answers for what had happened. He had finished with 13 points and five turnovers in his final game. Some of them costly. But maybe, he said, Kansas had just needed to be tougher.
“Toward the end,” Johnson would say, “we kind of played a little softer, like we didn’t want to I don’t know, I don’t want to say make a mistake. I don’t know, I guess were trying to hold on to something, but we needed to keep playing.”