March 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Kentucky halts Michigan's Final Four bid in thriller with taste of Wolverines' own medicine

Indianapolis — They survived the losses. They bridged the gap. They built a champion.

But Sunday in front of a crowd of 35,551 at Lucas Oil Stadium, Michigan simply couldn’t hold back the irresistible force that was Kentucky.

Not here, with Big Blue Nation reaching a fever pitch. And not now, facing a group of fabulous freshmen that began the season as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team and may yet end it the same way.

So, no, that it ended for the Wolverines was not a surprise, a young team beaten by a younger one in a game that truly felt like one for the ages. That it would end like this, though? That was the stunner for Michigan, beaten at its own game.

And watching the flaming arrow that Aaron Harrison fired over the outstretched arms of Caris LeVert arc through the lights and then bury itself deep, well, it was just an unbelievable sight. An unimaginable pain, too, after a desperate, center-court heave from Nik Stauskas came up empty at the buzzer, leaving the Michigan players standing in a daze, the disbelief etched on their faces after a 75-72 loss in the Midwest Regional final.

“He just hit a tough shot,” said LeVert, who was still trying to make sense of it all 20 minutes later in a somber postgame locker room. “I’ll have to see it again.”

And again and again and again, more than likely.

Aaron Harrison’s deep 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds left was another of those shining moments that make this NCAA tournament the spectacle it is. And for Michigan fans, Sunday’s shot no doubt brought back memories of Trey Burke gutting Kansas in last year’s regional semifinal. Only this time it was the Wolverines who were left emotionally eviscerated.

“You’re going to make the shot sometimes and it’s going to go against you sometimes,” said Stauskas, the sophomore guard who finished with a game-high 24 points in what likely was his collegiate farewell.

Over, and out

This time, Kentucky had the ball with 10 seconds left, and Michigan coach John Beilein had one request for his team defensively: Don’t get beat off the dribble.

“Make them score over you,” the coach said, reiterating that point in his postgame interview. “And he did.”

It was Harrison’s fourth triple of the second half, and his team’s seventh, matching the Wolverines, who’d come into the game drilling four times as many 3-pointers as their opponents in this tournament.

Still, it “was the shot we wanted them to take,” according to LeVert, who made sure to get a hand up as Harrison — they’re both 6-foot-6 — stepped back to try to get some separation.

“He was really up on me,” Harrison said. “Touched my hand a little bit, actually. The shot just fell.”

And with it, so did the Wolverines, who came this close to a second consecutive Final Four trip, but instead were left to watch the Wildcats — the only team in this tournament that was younger than Michigan — celebrating in a giddy heap on the floor.

John Calipari’s team will be the story at the Final Four now, just as Michigan’s Fab Five were back in 1992. But this is more than just an all-freshmen starting five, if you can believe it. Seven of the eight players Kentucky used Sunday were in high school a year ago.

Marcus Lee, the forgotten sixth McDonald’s All-American in the group, had played all of one minute in the tournament before this game. He hadn’t scored a point since Feb. 22 and he’d scored a total of nine since Thanksgiving. But against Michigan, he finished with 10 points — including four tip-in dunks — eight rebounds and two blocked shots.

Asked after the game if he’d dreamed about having a game like this the night before in the team hotel, Lee answered like a teenager would.

“Not at all,” he laughed. “I dreamed about food last night.”

Big problems

These Wildcats were hungry, all right. And though Michigan never trailed until the second half — buoyed by Stauskas’ hot hand early — this one felt a lot like last year’s national title game against Louisville, as Kentucky rallied to tie it just before the break

Calipari’s crew only grew stronger from there, turning the lane into a mosh pit and the game into their own private tip drill. The Wildcats finished with 17 offensive rebounds in the game, and if it seemed like more, that’s probably because Kentucky had four or six hands on some of them.

“You could see the size disadvantage was obvious out there,” said Beilein, who eventually turned to his trusted old friend — the 1-3-1 zone — to try to slow the onslaught, if not stop it.

It worked, to a degree. But neither team seemed able to stop the other down the stretch, which only added to this game’s entertainment value. A dunk here, a big shot there. Michigan’s game-tying flurry in the final minute – Jordan Morgan finally scored on a tip-in, though I have no idea how — looked like something you’d see with the goalie pulled at the end of a Stanley Cup playoff game.

Neither team was blinking in the bright lights.

And why should they, really? This isn’t child’s play, but it is a kid’s game these days, and Sunday was merely proof of how much fun that can be.

“It’s the story of college basketball right now,” Beilein said. “With transfers, with pro departures, there’s always gonna be change right now. And you’ve just got to accept it and move on and say, ‘OK, what do we do now?’”

That’s what Calipari keeps asking, as the one-and-done talent comes and goes. And that’s what Michigan did so well this season, too, after losing their top two scorers to the NBA — Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. — and their top post player (Mitch McGary) to back surgery. Somehow, the Wolverines managed to lead the nation in offensive efficiency this season, rolling to an outright Big Ten championship, which only adds to Beilein’s coaching cachet — and to expectations for more.

Chances are, Michigan will have to accept it again this summer, with Stauskas and perhaps Glenn Robinson III and McGary all moving on.

But as Morgan, the lone senior who was fighting back tears in the locker room, said, “Hopefully, this is just a start for where this program is going to go.”

That’s the hope, all right. But, man, what a to way finish.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III reacts after the loss to Kentucky Sunday, ending U-M's hopes of returning to the Final Four for a second consecutive year. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News