ARLINGTON, Texas – From the moment where Kansas led Michigan by 11 points with 3:47 remaining in regulation, Elijah Johnson had committed four turnovers, including a senseless 10-second violation. He missed two of his three shots, clanked the front end of a critical one-and-one and watched as the Jayhawks' express run toward a national championship collapsed in a heap.
Now it was overtime, Michigan up by two and despite the entire ordeal, Bill Self wanted the ball in the hands of the tough senior out of Las Vegas. Self wanted him to go to the rim, go force another overtime, go save KU from one of the most painful losses imaginable here in the Sweet 16.
Johnson got his shoulders past his defender, got open space and enough of a lane to the basket that Michigan's Jordan Morgan felt it was unlikely he could block the lay-up. Instead, Johnson hesitated as he flew through the air, eventually needing to turn mid-flight and throw a desperation pass out to the perimeter to Naadir Tharpe, who would miss a Hail Mary three.
Michigan 87, Kansas 85, and the program which over the last few years had been as reliable as any in March suddenly just booted away a trip to the Elite Eight with almost unfathomable futility. And the program that hadn't been here in a generation was moving on with the poise of a regular.
"This will go down as one of the toughest games that obviously we've been a part of," Self would say later.
"This is what we dream of," said Michigan coach John Beilein.
After the final shot clanked away, Johnson wound up in a heap in one corner of the court, a mix of shock and sadness and regret. The Michigan players were out on the court, celebrating. The Jayhawks were headed to the tunnel and yet Johnson just lay there. Eventually a couple of KU teammates lifted him up and all but carried him back to the locker room.
The pain was that deep.
"I definitely felt we beat ourselves," Johnson would say later, in a hushed tone in a despondent Jayhawks locker room.
When asked about his thoughts as he lay prone on that Cowboys Stadium court, Johnson could only look up and shake his head slightly.
He couldn't muster a sound. Tears were welling in his eyes.
Across the way, Mitch McGary and David Brandon were jumping and running up a ramp toward the Michigan locker room.
McGary is 20, the son of an Indiana steelworker, with the broad shoulders and working man's game to match. He'd just dropped 25 points and 14 rebounds on the Jayhawks, just killed them in the paint. Brandon is 60, a backup U of M quarterback a lifetime ago, and most recently the CEO of Domino's Pizza. A couple years back, he took an 82 percent pay cut to become Michigan's AD. Moments like this are priceless, after all.
McGary was jogging and high-fiving everyone in sight, mostly startled security guards. Many of them were female, to whom the image of a 6-foot-10, 270-pounder, even one wearing a huge smile, invading their space is a bit much. And yet between he and Brandon, it was McGary that was the most subdued.
One team's lost game is the other's game seized.
"That was awesome," shouted Brandon, a long way from a Fortune 500 boardroom. He grabbed McGary around the shoulders.
"You were awesome."
Suddenly the two broke into a sprint to get to the locker room, where the party had begun. There just isn't anything like pulling one out after staring defeat in the eye.
And Michigan stared it. The Wolverines trailed by 14 with six and a half minutes remaining, down to a team that had controlled play throughout and showed not a single sign of stumbling.
Over in the Michigan huddles though, whether it was the experienced voice of Beilein or the excitable one of assistant Bacari Alexander or the cool one of point guard Trey Burke, the message was the same:
Keep playing. Keep defending. Play all 40 minutes.
So they kept playing and kept defending and kept grinding the clock. "We were determined," Burke said.
Burke hadn't delivered in the first half, 0-4 from the field. It didn't matter. He kept shooting and shooting. He went nine-of-17 in the second half. He's the star of the team, and the Wolverines weren't going down with him sitting it out.
"He's got courage," Beilein marveled.
As Johnson's game came unraveled and Kansas' Ben McLemore, a potential No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, simply became a non-factor, Burke seized the moment, becoming bigger and bigger than his 6-foot frame would seemingly allow.
He dished an assist with 1:52 remaining in regulation, drilled a three-pointer with 1:13, drove and laid one in with 13.2. Finally, with Michigan trailing by three and the clock winding down, Burke took the ball and decided he was going to tie the game right there, right then.
He worked off a McGary screen, stepped back, and hit a 28-foot three pointer with 4.3 left to force overtime. At that point, KU was on the ropes.
"Once we went into overtime," Burke said, "we just did a really good job of sticking it out."
In the Kansas locker room, players sat in silence with towels draped over their heads, their eyes staring down between their shoes. Nobody dared get dressed. No one knew what the heck had just happened, only that it was over in an instant: seasons, careers, championship dreams.
Down the hall the Michigan kids were beaming and laughing and trying to re-enact Burke's step back three or Johnson's decision to not take the lay-up and kick it out or some other heroic moment by someone in Maize and Blue. They too didn't know how this game was won either, only that they get to stay in Texas, get to move on, get to still push for the Final Four.
Self just kept shaking his head afterward.
"You score 76 points you should win the game, period," he said, seemingly searching the box score for an answer that wouldn't come. "We were up 12. … But Trey and their players, they made great plays … the last three minutes we didn't do a lot of things right, which will be something we'll look back on and regret for a long, long time."
What could he say? His guys gave it away, but Michigan was there to take it, to outhustle them, to make the plays.
"We just didn't get it done, period," Self said.
Meanwhile, Beilein beamed. This was the program he built over the last few years – rock solid, full of confidence and competence.
"I think everybody that watched this game [Friday night] saw what we have been coaching all year," he said. "It's a bunch of young men that have high character. They play to win. They play together."
One game lost. One game won. On one side tears. On the other hugs and high fives.
"Props to Michigan," Self said.
"I feel bad for Kansas," Beilein said.
Welcome to March.
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