INDIANAPOLIS — Coming into Sunday’s Elite Eight game with No. 8 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan had to feel confident in another close game that was coming down the wire. The Wolverines entered Sunday’s game 10-2 in games decided by five points or less — including nine straight wins in that situation — and Michigan seemed to thrive in late-game situations during the 2013-14 season.
But the Wolverines’ streak of strong play in tight games ended on Sunday as Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left gave Kentucky the 75-72 win, ending Michigan’s chances of making back-to-back Final Fours.
The Wolverines could never get over the hump in the second half against Kentucky.
After withstanding an early 8-2 second-half run from the Wildcats, Michigan rallied to take a 55-51 lead with 11:27 left but Kentucky was the one that made key plays down the stretch to come away with the victory. After tying the game at 55 with 8:52 remaining on a Julius Randle jumper, Kentucky never trailed again in the contest. Despite Michigan tying the game at 70-all and 72-all, Kentucky roared back and got baskets to maintain its late-game lead.
It just wasn’t Michigan’s night to win a close game in a season that had seen them pull out a lot of close finishes.
“Each team had spurts in the game where they made runs,” freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “Their run kind of lasted longer than ours and the ball bounced their way tonight so credit them for executing their game plan.”
As Michigan forward Jordan Morgan sat with his shoulders slumped and his eyes red on a golf cart taking him from the Wolverines’ locker room to the postgame press conference, the senior completely looked the part of someone who had just lost their final college basketball game in heartbreaking fashion.
Disappointment was abound in the Michigan locker room in Lucas Oil Stadium, but most of the Wolverines seemed upset that they couldn’t get over the hump for Morgan, the only senior on Michigan’s roster.
“It hurts having a guy like J-Mo, putting his blood, heart, sweat and tears into this game and for this team,” Walton said. “Coming up short, knowing you could have made an extra play for him it kind of hurts.”
Michigan’s season has been defined by the extraordinary play of Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, the talent of sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III and the emergence of younger players like Walton and sophomore wing Caris LeVert but losing Morgan to foul trouble for much of the game hurt Michigan tremendously on Sunday.
Morgan had been playing at a very high level in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and with the senior only playing 22 minutes on Sunday, Kentucky took advantage on the interior. Michigan’s offense missed Morgan’s ability to screen and slip on pick-and-rolls and the Wolverines’ offense wasn’t nearly as potent with junior forward Jon Horford in the lineup.
Morgan finished 5-for-6 from the field with 11 points on Sunday.
The Wildcats also pounded the glass for a 35-24 advantage and outscored Michigan in the paint 46-36. The Wolverines actually outscored Kentucky on second-chance points, 23-17, but without Morgan’s consistency inside, players like Julius Randle (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Marcus Lee (10 points, eight rebounds) made a killing on the inside.
Morgan had only one double-double during the regular season but the senior had back-to-back double-doubles in Michigan’s first two NCAA Tournament wins over Wofford and Texas. The forward also added 15 points and seven rebounds in Friday’s win over Tennessee as Morgan took the key charge on Volunteers junior forward Jarnell Stokes with the game on the line for Michigan.
”One of the things we noticed with Jordan, when he has more playing time that he’s really excelled,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said after the game. “The problem we had this year was Jordan was playing so well, he was such a leader and such an asset to the team.”
But without Morgan as Michigan’s rock inside, the Wolverines failed to make a significant run against a Kentucky team that has consistently pounded teams on the interior this season. Morgan’s missing presence in the lineup allowed Kentucky to stay in the game despite Andrew and Aaron Harrison starting a combined 2-for-15 from the field.
Once Aaron Harrison heated up from the perimeter with four three-pointers in the game’s final 8:06, it was too much in the end for Michigan to overcome. The Wolverines had their chance to capitalize on the Harrison twins’ slow start, but couldn’t do so without Morgan in the lineup.
“It’s tough. You want to be out there, but I think Jon started to play a little bit better the second half,” Morgan said. “He really started to step it up, and, having fouls like that, that was a smart thing to do to just kind of conserve those fouls (and avoid) foul trouble so that I could finish out the game.”
It’s uncertain whether Stauskas, Robinson III and injured sophomore forward Mitch McGary will return to Michigan next season — as the trio flirts with the possibility of jumping to the NBA — but Michigan will surely miss the presence of Morgan next season.
Not many expected Michigan to be one possession away from making back-to-back Final Fours and winning the Big Ten title outright after losing Trey Burke — and the injury to McGary — but Morgan was a big reason why Michigan was a major contender this season.
“(This season) means a lot to us and I’m really happy for Jordan,” LeVert said. “We just tried to reflect on a great season, but at the same time, we lost by three (near) the buzzer, so it’s a tough loss for us.”