Arlington, Texas — It was time to go home, by all appearances. And then Trey Burke and the Wolverines unbelievably and impolitely refused to leave.
This is how new paths get carved and new stars get christened. The later it got, the more desperate and determined Michigan got, right up until Burke stole the moment and the game. With a ridiculous comeback fueled by the spirit of freshman Mitch McGary and the specialness of Burke, Michigan stunned Kansas 87-85 in overtime Friday night in the Sweet 16.
In an NCAA Tournament known for shockers, this was one of the more amazing turnarounds you'll ever witness. The Wolverines trailed by 14 with six minutes left. They trailed by 10 with slightly more than two minutes left. And they were still down three with four seconds left when Burke slid behind a McGary pick and fired a deep, deep 3-pointer that will grace Michigan highlight videos for perpetuity.
The Wolverines then grabbed the lead in overtime behind more Burke and McGary, and the Jayhawks couldn't recover. After so many heartbreakers this season, Michigan watched the final Kansas 3-point attempt clank off the rim, and as the exhausted Wolverines celebrated, the top-seeded Jayhawks trudged to their dressing room.
"We never lost the mind-set, even down 14 with six minutes left, that anything can happen," Burke said. "It's March, man. With the young team we have, a lot of people expected us to kind of fall apart. But we stuck it out. I'm so proud of this team."
John Beilein beamed too, as the Wolverines head to the Elite Eight for the first time in two decades. This was the signature moment the program craved, and the young players delivered in front of a Cowboys Stadium crowd that was decidedly pro-Kansas. Michigan faces Florida on Sunday for a shot at the Final Four and perhaps another signature moment.
Maybe the Jayhawks could see Burke coming — he is, after all, one of the best in the country. But they could not have fully anticipated the runaway truck that McGary has become, a 6-foot-10 beast who fortified the Wolverines' wobbly interior and stood hightop-to-hightop with Kansas 7-footer Jeff Withey.
McGary had 25 points and 14 rebounds, practically doubling Withey in both categories. Burke finished with 23 points after being held scoreless in the first half.
A ray of hope
The Jayhawks were playing their game nicely, slicing into the paint and dropping layup after layup, and as the lead ballooned to 68-54, they seemed too stout and experienced to blow it. The Wolverines helped them blow it by blowing past, with Burke finding his confidence, and also finding his teammates.
In the middle of everything was McGary, who has been an absolute revelation in this Tournament. He'd heard comments before the game from Withey that McGary didn't look so big in person. He was bigger than big all night.
"It's the NCAA Tournament, I'm not gonna back down against anybody," McGary said. "He's an All-American, but to me, he's another player who plays the same game as me."
The big kid with the buzzcut kept bringing the energy, and kept slipping inside for passes from Burke, who had 10 assists. Did the Jayhawks let up when the Wolverines seemed out of gas? Maybe. But that's precisely when Burke saw his opening and found a bit more room to shoot.
A trip home was beckoning but Burke wasn't ready, and neither were his teammates.
"The season flashed before our eyes those last two or three minutes," Burke said. "I had a lot of faith in that shot. … This win was not about me. This was a team effort. I had a more determined mind-set in the second half to get into the paint and make Withey play me so I could drop it off to the big guy."
Answering the bell
All five Michigan starters scored in double figures, and Glenn Robinson III made a scrappy play to grab a rebound and score with 28 seconds left to cut the deficit to three. Long before that, though, the Wolverines sensed something was coming, even down 10 with less than three minutes left.
"We all said, 'Believe, believe,' and Trey kept saying it," Robinson III said. "We were coming downcourt and he told me, 'We're not gonna go home, bro. We're not gonna lose this game.' So we couldn't.'"
They didn't, even when it looked like they would, and now you wonder how far they can go. They must play tougher inside and can't expect another miracle, but they'll be a fashionable pick to beat the third-seeded Gators. In six stirring minutes Friday night, the Wolverines turned an apparent tournament exit into an arrival, in a game that Kansas coach Bill Self called one of his toughest losses ever.
It was especially surprising after Michigan's painful start. Kansas kept pounding into the paint, and it wasn't a new issue for Michigan's defense. But this was a fairly new one: Burke couldn't find his shot in the first half. Oh, he was penetrating and creating for others, but if the Wolverines were going to advance, the Big Ten's Player of the Year had to lead them in many ways.
Once again, Burke drew all the defensive attention, which helped unleash the monster within McGary. The powerful freshman took a painful shot for the team barely two minutes into the game, when Kansas guard Elijah Johnson nailed him in the groin and he crumpled to the floor. The flagrant foul set a nasty tone but McGary answered it, again and again.
The Wolverines kept scrapping until they finally forged an opening for their star. Burke found it and nailed it, and there's no telling where he and his teammates are headed from here. Not home, not yet.