Anatomy of a comeback … and collapse

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When Kansas led Michigan by 11 with four and a half minutes left, the Jayhawks seemed to be just about the least likely team in America to blow the lead. This was a team that started four seniors. This was a team hardened and forged  by years of winning tough road games in the Big 12. This was a team coached by Bill Self, who has been on both sides of this situation so many times there seemed no surprises left.

Anyway, Michigan did not seem capable of a comeback, not on this day. The Jayhawks had held a steady lead from the start. The Wolverines had done surprising work just keeping the game relatively close — all game they had seemed like the little brother swinging punches at the air while the older brother holds him off with one arm. It just seemed a matter of the clock running out.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

4:04 left: Kansas’ Travis Releford had ball stripped away by Michigan freshman Mitch McGary.

There was something off about the way Kansas came in. Heck, the game began with senior Elijah Johnson committing a flagrant foul by hitting McGary in the general groin area. People will argue, I suppose, whether Johnson fully intended to hit McGary in the general groin area — it was only that sliver of doubt that prevented Johnson from being kicked out of the game. Before the game, senior Jeff Withey had apparently talked about how small McGary was (he’s 6-foot-10) and how he expected Kansas to dominate inside. It was all very strange and not very helpful at all.

It’s as if they didn’t understand that McGary, though only a freshman, shows the sorts of tendencies that have already made him beloved at Michigan and will, over time, make him one of the most despised and feared players in the Big 10 — he does all sorts of little things that tear out opponents hearts. It’s the Bill Laimbeer stuff, the Dennis Johnson stuff, in baseball the A.J. Pierzynski stuff, — he strips away a pass, he grabs a loose ball, he steals an offensive rebound, he tips in a ball, he already seems to have a particular knack for staying in the moment and making the winning play.

Remember that scene in “The Usual Suspects” when Chazz Palminteri says to Kevin Spacey, “I’m smarter than you. I’ll find out what I want to know, and I’ll get it from you whether you like it or not?” Yeah, poking at McGary kind of felt like that.

3:55 left: Michigan’s Trey Burke missed a three-point shot. Teammate Glenn Robinson III grabbed the rebound. Robinson missed a shot. McGary grabbed the offensive rebound (another play!), the ball was passed around and it ended up in the hands of Tim Hardaway Jr. He was fouled and made one of two free throws. KANSAS 70, Michigan 60.

Michigan was beginning to out hustle Kansas. This would play a major role in the final four minutes.

3:29 left: Elijah Johnson had ball stripped away by McGary (yet another play!). Michigan quickly worked the ball around and McGary got the ball underneath and scored (we’ll stop putting stuff in parentheses for McGary). KANSAS 70, Michigan 62.

2:54 left: Kansas passed the ball around beautifully and found senior Kevin Young underneath the basket. It looked like he would try a reverse layup but instead he made a brilliant little tip pass to Withey who slammed. KANSAS 72, Michigan 62.

Looking back, I suspect Kansas’ players thought this would be the clincher. It sort of felt that way. They had a double-digit lead, less than three minutes left, the huge Kansas crowd in Cowboys Stadium was roaring (Michigan players talked about this feeling like a road game), this thing seemed to be over from the outside looking in. The way Kansas played the last three minutes, you can’t help but wonder if it looked that way on the inside looking out too.

2:31 left: Hardaway missed a jumper. Robinson got the offensive board — Michigan was playing with the energy of the desperate — and the ball worked back to Hardaway who missed another jump shot. This time Elijah Johnson got the rebound. You could almost hear the deep breath release on the Kansas side. Here Johnson made what I think was the single most devastating play of the game for Kansas.

2:24 left: Johnson dribbled the ball too far in and then tried to pass the ball back out. The ball was tipped away by Robinson, who outran Kansas players for it and dunked on the breakaway. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 64.

Everything Elijah Johnson did here — absolutely everything — seemed wrong. He dribbled fast into the Michigan front court, even though Kansas needed only to take some time off the clock. He dribbled into the teeth of Michigan’s defense, even though there was clearly no opening there. He did not call timeout when he got in trouble, even though Kansas had timeouts. He passed the ball back toward the half court stripe, even though it was a reckless pass that could not lead to anything good.  This single play was pure panic and it led to a dunk and a Michigan sense of hope. Bill Self probably should have realized this and called timeout. Instead …

2:02 left: Johnson, perhaps still in a fog from his turnover, seemed to lose all sense of time. He was caught by a 10-second violation when he could not get the ball across half court in time. You almost never see THIS kind of 10-second violation. Michigan didn’t trap him. They didn’t double team him. He simply let precious seconds tick away, and then, there was some tough defense that stopped him before he could make it across the line. It was as if the batteries on his inner alarm clock had run out.

Elijah Johnson is a good player. He has been through pretty much everything in his four years at Kansas, he has played just about every role, he has made many big plays in big moments. But something about this moment overwhelmed him.

1:55 left: McGary again — this time he was open under the basket he made a little layup. KANSAS 72, MICHIGAN 66.

And now, yes, everybody understood that it was a game. One minute of clock-time earlier, it was not a game. Not a competitive one. But Michigan’s hustle, the Wolverines playmaking along with Kansas’ trepidation and lack of energy had turned everything around. Bill Self called a timeout. You could lip-read his word: “Unbelievable.”

1:22 left: Travis Relaford got fouled by McGary as he drove hard to the basket. This was a break for Kansas. McGary definitely got all ball on the block — Steve Kerr thought it was a clean play, and Marv Albert tended to agree. You could argue that McGary did hit Relaford pretty hard with the body. The point is not whether it was a good call, though. The point is that it could have gone either way. This one went Kansas. Relaford made both free throws. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 66.

1:16 left: Burke made a long three-point shot. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 69.

No comeback/collapse of this magnitude can happen with one or two plays. It has to be an astonishing series of heroics and mishaps, good and bad bounces, big plays that nobody will remember later. Carlton Fisk’s homer would never have happened except for Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer, and George Foster’s great throw to the plate and numerous other things. But, inevitably, someone will have to step up and do something extraordinary. Trey Burke, the Big 10 player of the year, seemed to understand that this last bit was his job. He did not make a single shot in the first half. Michigan coach John Beilein had told him to look for his shot. It was his time.

41 seconds left: Kansas Ben McLemore missed a driving shot.

There are many people who believe McLemore will be the first pick in the NBA Draft. He will definitely be a very high pick. He has amazing talent — Self calls him the most talented player he’s ever coached. He glides. He can get off his shot seemingly whenever he wants. When his confidence soars (and there were times in this game when his confidence was soaring) he’s an absolute force of nature.

But throughout this tournament, McLemore had often looked lost and discouraged. People offered numerous theories about it, but nobody really knows — not even McLemore. Everything happens so fast in college basketball. McLemore’s father was a playground legend in St. Louis … but he disappeared from Ben’s life. His older brother, Keith, is in jail serving a long sentence after two shooting incidents. Ben grew up in a tiny home often without heat. He followed his basketball talents. He played at three different high schools, was declared ineligible for his freshman season as a partial qualifier, and not long after that told the Lawrence World Journal’s Tom Keegan that his best day is every single day he’s on campus at Kansas.

Then, suddenly, he’s on national television, he’s playing in front of millions, he’s got NBA scouts breaking down his every move, he’s got countless people relying on him, he’s got countless critics looking to call him a fraud, he’s driving to the basket with a chance to put the game away. Of course, a player can’t think about these things or they’ll never succeed. They must remove all this from their minds. They must live inside the moment. They must try, anyway.

33 seconds left: Tim Hardaway missed a three-point shot. There was a scramble for the ball. McLemore seemed to have the best chance to simply fall on the ball — Kansas had the possession arrow. Instead Robinson took the ball away, and he hit a difficult reverse layup. KANSAS 74, MICHIGAN 71.

“Seasons,” Bill Self would say, “usually come down — if you have a pretty good team — to one possession.”

21 seconds left: Johnson made two free throws. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 71.

Even with all the fury on the Michigan side and all the panic on the Kansas side, it STILL seemed like the Jayhawks would win when Elijah Johnson stepped to the line and swished two free throws.

14 seconds left: Burke drove to the basket and made an open layup. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 73.

The Jayhawks were clearly defending the three-point shot. Burke realized that and pierced through the defense and scored easily.

I think this was a brilliant and game-saving play by Burke … and another blunder by Kansas. It is often said by announcers that the worst thing you can do here is foul because it stops the clock. I’ve heard that so many times that I never really questioned it — now I will. I don’t think it’s true, at least not in this situation. i’m not saying you WANT to foul. I am saying, though, that allowing an uncontested layup in seven seconds seems worse to me than fouling. An uncontested layup also stops the clock and it gives the team two easy points. At least if you foul the player has to make both free throws.

13 seconds left: Elijah Johnson was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Everything about the way Michigan ran the final minute was perfect — John Beilein is one of the best chalkboard coaches in America, and it showed. Michigan only allowed one second to expire after Burke’s made layup before the Wolverines fouled Johnson. They had not used up their fouls earlier in the game, so Johnson was forced to shoot a one-and-one. When he missed, Hardaway grabbed the rebound and got the ball into the hands of Burke. It was, as the cliche goes, just the way you draw it up.

4 seconds left: Trey Burke made amazing 28-foot three-pointer. KANSAS 76, MICHIGAN 76.

When the game ended, many people would blame Bill Self for not fouling before Burke could get off the shot. This seems to me classic second-guessing and, I think, wrongheaded. Let’s say Kansas fouls Burke with eight or nine seconds left, which is what we’re talking about here. OK, now what? Burke is an 80% free throw shooter, and he was locked in, so let’s just assume he makes both free throws.

And … now what? Kansas STILL was in the one-and-one. You assume Michigan fouls immediately, and would you REALLY want a Kansas player on the line with six or so seconds left shooting a one-and-one with the Jayhawks up only a point? I wouldn’t. A foul there and Kansas legitimately could have lost the game in regulation.

That’s not to say that Kansas and Self escape second-guessing. Self admitted afterward — the Jayhawks defended the play terribly. One defender got picked out of the play, another did not switch and Burke got a good look. It was a very long look, sure, and this is not to take away anything from Trey Burke making a ridiculous 28-foot shot to tie a game with four seconds left.

But you can’t give him a clean look at that shot. You just can’t. Burke might be the best player in America. He’s a great shooter.  You don’t want to give him a comfortable look from 25 feet or 30 feet or 40 feet or 50 feet away. You don’t want to let him get his feet set, basket clear sight, no way. You don’t want to just hope he misses. Not Trey Burke.

Of course, he didn’t miss. When Kansas’ Nadir Tharpe missed his three-pointer — it wasn’t a bad look either, actually, but he missed it — the game went to overtime. Kansas wouldn’t play well in the overtime. Burke would play great. And then game ended in more chaos when Kansas, trailing by two, had Elijah Johnson drive toward the basket. He seemed to realize that he was too far behind the backboard, he passed the ball wildly back to Tharpe for a wicked off-balance three pointer and Kansas lost. “Obviously we didn’t do a very good job on that last possession,” Self said, knowing he was understating things.

But the game wasn’t lost on that one play just like the game wasn’t won when Burke made his long three-pointer (or his even longer three in overtime). It was, instead, a stunning series of plays made by Michigan and not made by Kansas.

John Beilein would say: “The ball bounced our way down the last few minutes, and we keep on playing.”

Bill Self would say, “This will be a tough one to get over for a long time.”

That’s the NCAA Tournament.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: Trae Young shines, comebacks galore, five ranked teams lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

Trae Young is well on his ways towards becoming college basketball’s best and most exciting story this season. Entering Saturday, he was leading the nation averaging 28.8 points and third nationally in assists, averaging 8.8 per game. Those numbers are going to go up, as the diminutive freshman went for 29 points and 10 assists as Oklahoma went into Intrust Bank Arena and knocked off No. 3 Wichita State, 91-83.

That gym is one of the toughest gyms in America to leave with a win. And Wichita State, traditionally, is one of college basketball’s toughest teams, one of the best defensive units in the sport.

And Young torched them.

He had 21 points and seven assists by halftime, as the Sooners jumped out to a 54-39 lead. What was billed as a matchup between two of the nation’s best point guards devolved into Young’s coming out party on national television. Here’s the big question to ask now: Just how good is this Oklahoma team if Trae Young is college basketball’s latest superstar?

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: The lone big man on the Kansas roster played his best game as a collegian on Saturday night. He finished with 26 points – on 13-for-17 shooting, he didn’t even attempt a free throw – and nine boards, but more importantly he blocked a James Palmer shot with less than ten seconds left to help Kansas hold on to a 73-72 win in Lincoln.
  • JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana: Morgan had a career-high 34 points to go along with 11 boards as the Hoosiers came-from-behind to knock off No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Morgan scored Indiana’s last 12 points in regulation and eight of their 15 in overtime. With 11 seconds left, he scored an and-one with Indiana down three, and after the Hoosiers got an offensive rebound, threw down the game-winning dunk.
  • TYUS BATTLE and OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: Battle finished with 29 points and Brissett scored 24 of his career-high 25 points and grabbed 10 of his career-high 14 boards in the second half and overtime of an 86-79 Syracuse win. The Orange were down by as many as 13 points in the second half on the road and still managed to get a win over their rivals.
  • QUADE GREEN, Kentucky: Green had 17 points and five assists as No. 8 Kentucky knocked off Virginia Tech, 93-86, in Rupp Arena on Saturday, but what was most impressive is that Green did it while wearing a sweet pair of shades to protect an injured eye.
Quade Green (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

TEAM OF THE DAY

For the first time in four years, Rutgers is the pride of New Jersey. Playing in front of a packed house at the RAC, Rutgers came from 13 points down to knock off No. 15 Seton Hall, 71-65. Corey Sanders led the way with 22 points for the Scarlet Knights, who used a 17-2 run to close out the game after the Pirates took a 63-54 lead with six minutes left.

GAME OF THE DAY

There were a number to choose from today. Virginia Tech-Kentucky was unexpectedly thrilling. St. Bonaventure won on a buzzer-beater.

And then there were the comebacks.

North Dakota had a buzzer-beater force overtime at No. 12 Gonzaga after the Zags erased a nine-point deficit in the final four minutes. Indiana’s comeback against No. 18 Notre Dame was wild, even if much of the game itself was boring. Syracuse was down 13 in the second half and won in overtime. Rutgers was down nine with six minutes left and won. And No. 10 Xavier? All they did was erase a 22-point deficit in the final 14:25 to win.

Should I mention the insanity of what happened with No. 19 Florida State and No. 22 Florida, losing by a total of three points in the same building on the same day to unranked opponents?

But for my money, the best game that we saw on Saturday was between No. 13 Kansas and Nebraska. The Huskers desperately needed a win at home to bolster their non-conference résumé while the Jayhawks were looking to snap a two-game losing streak.

They did.

Thanks to Svi Mykhailiuk:

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Have you ever seen an arena get evacuated in the middle of a game that is being broadcast on national television?

Because that is precisely what happened on Saturday at Value City Arena as Ohio State was playing Appalachian State. Early in the second half, an exhaust fan at a concession stand failed, which resulted in the fire alarm getting triggered and the arena being cleared.

It was a scary moment, but it was also an incident that was handled precisely the way it is supposed to be handled.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

It was a good day for the guys that can’t shoot in the state of Kentucky. Kentucky, ranked No. 8 in the country and last in the percentage of points they get from beyond the arc, went 11-for-22 from three as they knocked off a good Virginia Tech team that leads the nation in three-point percentage. Then there’s Louisville, who beat Memphis in Madison Square Garden on the back of a 14-for-26 three-point shooting performance.

Saturday was not a good day for the basketball teams in the Sunshine State. It started with No. 19 Florida State, who suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of Oklahoma State in the first game of a double-header. In the second game, No. 22 Florida lost for the fourth time in their last five games, as they allowed Clemson to pick up their best win of the season.

It looked like it was going to be a really bad day for No. 10 Xavier, who trailed East Tennessee State at home, 51-29, with 14:25 left on Saturday afternoon. The Musketeers proceeded to go on a 39-15 run to end the game, winning 68-66 and leaving with nothing more than a warning for why it’s dangerous to take any team lightly.

Kyle Washington had 19 points and Gary Clark chipped in 10 points, 11 boards, four assists, three steals and three blocks for No. 25 Cincinnati in a 77-63 win at UCLA.

No. 23 Arizona cruised to another road win, this time at New Mexico, thanks to 24 points from Rawle Alkins, playing his second game since returning from a broken foot.

No. 18 Purdue cruised to an 82-67 win over Butler in the opener of the Crossroads Classic. Carsen Edwards led the way with 18 points.

VIDEO: St. Bonaventure beats Vermont on Matt Mobley buzzer-beater

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St. Bonaventure outlasted Vermont in Olean, NY, on Saturday afternoon, winning 81-79 thanks to this buzzer-beating three from Matt Mobley.

It was the only shot that Mobley, who is averaging 19.6 points on the season, made on the day:

Vermont guard Trae Bell-Haynes missed a layup on the previous possession, but Payton Henson was there for a put-back to give Vermont a 79-78 lead with just five seconds on the clock.

Jaylen Adams scored 17 points and had five assists to lead St. Bonaventure. Courtney Stockard added 14 points, and Amadi Ikpeze and Izaiah Brockington each chipped in with 13.

Anthony Lamb led the Catamounts with 27 points.

VIDEO: Arena evacuated during Ohio State-Appalachian State game

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There was a weird scene on Saturday evening as Ohio State hosted Appalachian State.

Early in the second half, a fire alarm went off as the game as being played, which was followed by an announcement played over the PA asking everyone to evacuate the arena.

And it was all captured live on the Big Ten Network:

The game was eventually continued, and it appears that the incident was nothing more than the fire alarm working the way that it is supposed to. From a statement released by Ohio State: “Tonight’s event was interrupted by a failure on an exhaust fan. The fan shut off and allowed the smoke from a concession stand to enter the fresh air return on one of our air handlers and activated one of our smoke detectors. The building systems worked as they were designed and we were able to reset the alarm, repair the exhaust and return to normal operations.”

Clemson rallies past No. 22 Florida 71-69

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Marcquise Reed threw a 75-foot pass to Elijah Thomas for a dunk that put Clemson ahead to stay with 37 seconds left, and the Tigers rallied from a 12-point deficit in the second half Saturday to beat No. 22 Florida 71-69 in the Orange Bowl Classic.

With Clemson trailing 68-67, Reed rebounded a missed 3-point attempt by KeVaughn Allen and threw a football-style pass from one free-throw lane to the other, hitting Thomas on the run for an easy score.

Clemson (9-1) beat a ranked team for only the eighth time in school history and continued its best start since 2008. Florida (6-4) lost for the fourth time in the past five games.

The Tigers won despite having a point taken off the scoreboard with 4 seconds left. Thomas’ free throw put Clemson ahead 70-68, but the point was wiped out when the officials realized it was Reed who had been fouled.

Reed then made two free throws to help seal the win. He finished with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds.

Gabe DeVoe added 19 points and six rebounds for the Tigers, who shot 51 percent. Clemson coach Brad Brownell earned his 300th victory.

Jalen Hudson scored the Gators’ first 12 points and finished with 23.

Egor Koulechov sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Gators a 40-33 halftime lead, and they were up 47-35 early in the second half. Clemson took its first lead since 4 minutes into the game when DeVoe sank a 3-pointer to make it 67-66.

The meeting was the first between the teams since 1957.

No. 19 Florida State lost to Oklahoma State 71-70 in the first game of the doubleheader.

BIG PICTURE

Florida coach Mike White has been unhappy with his team’s transition defense. The Gators allowed only seven fast-break points, but that included Thomas’ decisive dunk.

UP NEXT

The Gators play host to James Madison on Wednesday.

Clemson plays host to South Carolina on Tuesday.

Oklahoma State hands No. 19 Florida State 1st loss, 71-70

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — A grinning Mitchell Solomon collapsed on his back under the Florida State basket, looking up toward his celebrating Oklahoma State teammates and the scoreboard above them.

Cowboys 71, Seminoles 70.

Solomon scored on a tip-in with 6 seconds left and then happily fell to the floor at the other end of the court when he took a game-clinching charge, and Oklahoma State knocked No. 19 Florida State from the unbeaten ranks Saturday in the Orange Bowl Classic.

Florida State went ahead on Terance Mann’s follow with 10 seconds remaining, but Oklahoma State needed only four seconds to go the length of the court to score for the 14th and final lead change.

Following a timeout, the Seminoles’ CJ Walker drove into the lane but collided with Solomon and was called for the foul, sealing the Cowboys’ win.

“I just try to pride myself on playing that way all the time,” Solomon said.

Florida State (9-1) missed a chance to match the best start to a season in school history. Oklahoma State (8-2) ended a streak of seven consecutive losses against ranked teams since February.

“To come out and compete for 40 full minutes — we hadn’t done that yet this year,” Cowboys coach Mike Boynton said. “We beat a really good team today. Florida State is going to win a lot of games in the ACC.”

The Seminoles’ loss left only four unbeaten teams in Division I: Villanova, Arizona State, Miami and TCU.

“We’re in a conference where you can’t get caught up in streaks, because nobody in the ACC is going to go undefeated,” coach Leonard Hamilton said. “It doesn’t happen. Tonight we played against a team that played a little better than us.”

Florida State squandered a seven-point lead in the final 8 minutes but still had a chance to go ahead in the final seconds. Oklahoma State forward Jeffrey Carroll said the final sequence starring Solomon at both ends of the court had a cinematic tinge.

“It almost felt like slow motion,” Carroll said, “like a movie almost.”

Boynton said he expected the Seminoles to drive to the lane on their final possession.

“We were just fortunate that Mitch knew the right play,” Boynton said. “He came over and gave up his body, sacrificed for his teammates and got our team a win.”

Solomon had 12 points and 11 rebounds. Carroll, a senior, made his first start of the season and scored 23 points to surpass 1,000 for his career, and was voted the game’s outstanding player

Senior Phil Cofer scored a career-high 22 points for Florida State. Mann, a junior, had 20 points and a career-high 14 rebounds.

The Seminoles committed a season-high 22 turnovers against a variety of Oklahoma State defenses.

“They were extremely prepared,” Hamilton said. “They mixed the defenses up.”

BIG PICTURE

Eight players had two or more turnovers for Florida State. Oklahoma State has forced at least 19 turnovers in each of the past four games.

The Seminoles shot 41 percent and were held well below their scoring average of 87.1 points per game. They were outscored 37-32 in the second half — the first time they’ve been outscored in a half this season.

Florida State also missed three of six free throws in the final 3:20.

BIG HOLE

The Seminoles fell behind 9-4 for their biggest deficit of the season.

NEWCOMER

St. John’s transfer Yankuba Sima made his Cowboys debut and had five points in 16 minutes.

INJURY REPORT

Seminoles center Christ Koumadje (foot) dressed but missed his seventh game in a row.

STAYING LOOSE

Solomon stood at the end of the bench when he was not in the game.

“I just stand up so my knees don’t get tight and stiffen up,” the senior said.

Said Carroll to Solomon: “You’re getting old.”

UP NEXT

Oklahoma State hosts Tulsa on Tuesday.

Florida State hosts Charleston Southern on Monday.