Elijah Johnson’s best moment of an otherwise miserable game came with 6 minutes, 50 seconds left in regulation, a three-pointer from the left side that gave Kansas a 68-54 lead, its largest of the game.
At that point, a series of mistakes and bad decisions — all the way down to the final field-goal attempt in overtime — doomed the top-seeded Jayhawks to one of their most painful NCAA Tournament losses, 87-85 to No. 4 seed Michigan in the South Regional semifinals.
“We made some bonehead plays late,” is how senior guard Travis Releford described it.
Coach Bill Self also used the same word several times as he picked apart the disaster.
The spiral started slowly. KU took a 10-point lead on Jeff Withey’s dunk with 2:52 remaining. The play was wonderfully executed, with crisp ball movement.
But this is where the bone-headedness started to kick in.
Johnson committed turnovers on the next two possessions. On the first, he got trapped in a double team on the baseline and tried to pass it out front to Withey, the 7-foot target. Johnson or the Kansas bench could have called timeout, but instead Johnson’s pass was deflected by Glenn Robinson III and taken in for a dunk.
Less than a minute after the lead seemingly had reached a safe double-digit margin, the Wolverines now had new life, down 72-66 because they converted after Johnson had committed his second turnover, a backcourt violation.
All of which allowed Trey Burke to become the hero.
Burke, the national player of the year candidate who dominated the second half, took over in the critical final minute. Burke scored eight points in the final 75 seconds, including the game-tying, 28-foot three-pointer that forced overtime and will be remembered as one of the biggest moments in Michigan’s basketball history.
But Burke never would have had a chance to be a hero where it not for KU’s gaffes.
Burke’s big shot was set up when Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12.6 seconds remaining. Burke got off the shot because the Jayhawks didn’t switch defenders on a screen. Johnson, guarding Burke, wound up tangled with screen-setter Mitch McGary and both wound up on the floor. Kevin Young arrived too late to bother the shot.
Self was asked if he considered fouling. The Jayhawks led by three. Burke took the shot with about 7 seconds remaining.
“I’ll look back on that one,” Self said. “I wouldn’t have fouled with 8 seconds left. Looking back now I wish we would have obviously. But that was not a difficult (screen) switch. We let him come off the screen naked and shoot it.”
But perhaps a moment that will live with the Jayhawks came a couple of possessions earlier. KU led 76-71 and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a three-pointer. The ball was loose on the floor. Ben McLemore looked to have a chance to grab it, but Michigan was more aggressive. Robinson wound up with it and put it back to slice the Wolverines’ deficit to 76-73 with 28.9 seconds remaining.
“All we had to do was fall on the ball,” Self said. “The possession arrow was ours. We just didn’t do it
“Seasons usually come down, if you’re a good team, to one possession, at least it has with us, almost every year. This wasn’t one possession, this was about five possessions we had to get a stop or create a jump ball or anything.”
But Kansas didn’t make any of that happen. The final play in overtime, Johnson driving to the basket and kicking out to Naadir Tharpe for an off-balance three-point attempt instead of taking a shot that could have tied the score, capped a series of mistakes.
“All we had to do was make one play,” Self said of the final moments of regulation and overtime. “We just didn’t do it.”