ARLINGTON, Texas -- When the horn blared as Naadir Tharpe's leaning three-pointer hit glass and then rim and then, fatally for Kansas, the court at Cowboys Stadium without disturbing the net, the scoreboard told a story that really couldn't be believed. The gigantic display screen dwarfing the floor below it read Michigan 87, Kansas 85, a final count that didn't seem possible given most of the previous 2 1/2 hours.
The Jayhawks had more or less controlled the game from the outset, repeatedly getting to the rim as if there were a red carpet and velvet ropes adorning the lane. The lead, which felt like it should have been bigger, was still 10 with 2:22 left to play. The heavily partisan Jayhawks crowd was in pre-celebration mode, with a full weekend in town and a regional final happily on tap Sunday.
Then, maybe 20 minutes later, when Tharpe's shot banged off the rim, there was a somewhat horrified gasp that mixed awkwardly with the screams of joy from the Michigan supporters and the neutrals reveling in what they witnessed. You will read storylines built around the magic of Trey Burke and karma biting Elijah Johnson and a specific kind of vegetable available in white, yellow and Spanish varieties applying in multiple ways, but when the shock of Michigan's comeback wore off, you realized mostly everything about this game made a lot of sense.
All season long, the Wolverines were carried by the majesty of Burke and his merry band of talented freshmen while being marked with a scarlet D. Could they defend well enough to win it all? As the Jayhawks cobbled together a shot chart straight out of a hoops quant analyst's dreams, all shots in the paint and open threes, the Wolverines were pretty much helpless to stop them. To stop
Kansas had ample experience, its own future NBA lottery pick, and the interior defense to win the title, but Jayhawks fans held their breath nightly over the dangerously erratic state of KU's point guard play. For 38 minutes, Johnson and Tharpe did enough good things for the Jayhawks to win. Then everything blew up, with both point guards as leading characters in the game's final chapters.
Things could have been a lot different had the referees come to a different determination in the game's first two minutes. Johnson was called for a Flagrant 1 foul when he was caught smacking McGary in the groin. It wasn't a violent shot, but it was seemingly intentional (and clearly excessive) and could have been deemed a Flagrant 2, which carries immediate ejection.
Asked after the game, Johnson said "I just play hard. I didn't realize what I did." With the media remaining somewhat unconvinced, he later added, "I didn't do that on purpose. People have seen my character all year, so that's what I'm going to go with."
His reprieve meant he was still on the court when the Jayhawks had their 10-point edge with the clock ticking toward two minutes, when everything went nuts but somehow reverted to normalcy. Here's the rundown, with commentary from the characters involved:
-- Johnson committed back-to-back turnovers leading to four quick Michigan points. ("We just started to turn the ball over," Tharpe said.)
-- Burke had an assist, then a three and later a layup to cut Michigan's deficit to three. ("He was in the huddle telling us not to give up, that the game wasn't over," Michigan's Spike Albrecht said.)
-- Johnson, after making two free throws on a previous trip, clanked the front end of a one-and-one. (Nothing really to say here. He was more than aware of this miss in the postgame interviews, which included a lot of very quiet responses and some silent headshaking.)
-- Burke weaved down the court and hit a 30-footer that will live forever in the annals of great NCAA tournament moments. It was a moonshot that felt like it hung in the air forever, seemingly destined to bang off the front rim but somehow landed beyond it and rustled through the netting. It was a season-saving star turn that deserves more than one parenthetical sentence.
"It's not outside of the realm of what he can do," Wolverines center Jordan Morgan said. "Honestly, I don't think there are many shots he can't make. That's just being honest. I've seen him make just about every shot there is to make. But as far as in a game, given the situation, it's probably the best he's ever done."
"I've seen him hit shots like that all the time in practice," added reserve guard Spike Albrecht. "Just when we're messing around, he's all about that through-the-legs, a little step-back hop. He gets me all the time in practice, so it was nothing new when I [saw] him do it.
"There's nothing you can do about it. You just turn around and [say] 'Damn, he's good.'"
Yes, he is good. Very good.
-- Tharpe then raced down court with the inbounds and pulled up for an open three, which he missed. ("The first one, I thought I was going to make it.")
Overtime. Which made zero sense, but made perfect sense. If that makes sense.
Tharpe's reference to "the first one" is crucial because there was a second one coming. After some more Burke clutchness early in overtime, the Jayhawks had eight seconds to save their season. Johnson turned the corner on a high screen and drove to the basket, seemingly with a layup looming. But he opted out of the shot and instead kicked crosscourt to Tharpe, who could only muster the leaning three that rimmed out after smacking the glass.
"I just didn't like the [lack of] momentum," Johnson said about why he didn't shoot when the chance was seemingly there. "I definitely could have definitely shot the ball, but something told me that we probably could get a better shot. Everyone was sucked in and looking at me.
"Yeah, I could have shot the ball. I definitely could have shot the ball, but for some reason, I told myself we had a better option, so I looked for it."
And with that, the Wolverines mobbed each other and the Jayhawks walked off the court as stunned as most of the fans in the building. But should the spectators really have been? Burke finally hit the shot that rimmed out for him several times before and Kansas' point guards caved in at the absolute worst time. Neither of those developments should surprise anyone who watched this whole season unfold. This game, and its dramatic turn, wasn't about karma or magic or onions. It was about the law of averages.
Improbably, the Wolverines won. Which made zero sense, but made perfect sense. If that makes sense.