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  • One unforgettable March shot five years ago begat another for Michigan, which heads into the Sweet 16 looking as dangerous as any team left standing after producing magic when the moment demanded it most.
By Greg Bishop
March 22, 2018

LOS ANGELES – The birth of a Michigan buzzer beater took place five years ago, in late March of 2013, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines were playing Kansas that evening, and among the millions watching the nationally televised affair was a basketball-obsessed eighth grader in Milwaukee. His name was Jordan Poole.

Poole saw Michigan guard Trey Burke knock down a three-pointer with less than five seconds left to force overtime in a game the Wolverines ultimately won. Until that night, until seeing that exact shot, Poole had never considered the basketball program at Michigan before. But that night, he decided the Wolverines deserved some more of his attention.

Michigan did recruit Poole, the eighth grader who became a nationally ranked high schooler, No. 49 in ESPN’s Top 100 in 2017. He even hit one shot before college that would resonate like Burke’s triple in this year’s NCAA tournament. It happened his senior year, while Poole was playing for La Lumiere, a prominent national program in Indiana. Against fellow powerhouse Montverde Academy (Fla.), he took a pass on the right wing as the final seconds ticked off in the first half, found just enough space to squeeze a shot off, took it while his legs scissored and scored as the buzzer went off. Poole didn’t remember that shot until last Saturday, after he hit an almost identical one, only with so much more at stake.

These are the dots that connected last week, when Poole catapulted Michigan into the Sweet 16 with another buzzer beaten. It happened against Houston and it will now live forever in “One Shining Moment” lore. The story of this particular buzzer beater is in many ways the story of every buzzer beater, which is to say that a million dots like the ones above needed to connect, in order for Poole and his team to continue their season against Texas A&M here on Thursday at the Staples Center.

“What happened,” assistant coach Saddi Washington said on Wednesday, “is the nature of what March is.”

Indeed. Michigan started the season outside the top 25, buried deep into the “receiving votes” category of the poll. And while their roster was filled with young players and lacked a true, takeover-games-consistently-type star, it’s not like they were rebuilding. This is Michigan, after all, a tournament participant in seven of the last eight seasons.

The Wolverines lost three times before Christmas, but they continued to improve, eventually winning the Big Ten tournament—after topping Michigan State and Purdue back-to-back—then taking advantage of an 11-day layoff to prepare for the NCAAs and beating Montana in their first tilt.

Against Houston, Michigan trailed 51–46 with 8:20 left. They also trailed 60–59 with 2:07 remaining and 63–61 with 25 seconds to go. That’s when senior guard and captain Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman missed a layup, falling to his knees on the baseline, thinking he had missed his opportunity to secure an indelible March moment. Not exactly.

The anatomy of a buzzer beater continued from there, as Houston’s senior forward Devin Davis missed two free throws with four seconds remaining. It wasn’t lost on Michigan’s players there that they had been saved by two missed freebies near the end of a season when they ranked 328th in free-throw percentage in Division I. Another dot connected.

The Wolverines huddled. Many guessed the play before Coach John Beilein called it out. “Indiana,” he told the players, who knew that play well, considering Beilein used it late against Maryland back in January. In that game, Abdur-Rahkman caught a long pass, drove into the paint and drew a foul, making two free throws to turn a loss into a 68–67 win.

This time, coaches wanted Abdur-Rahkman to run an option route, essentially, flashing from half-court close to the lane, using his momentum to carry him forward. That way he could drive or try and draw a foul, just like against the Terrapins.

Abdur-Rahkman had arrived in Ann Arbor from Allentown, Pa. He had scored more than 1,250 career points and ranked third this season in scoring at 12.6 points per game. In Wichita last week, he passed Burke and Chris Webber, two Wolverine legends, on the school’s career scoring chart (although, to be fair, he needed four seasons where they took only two). In a lot of ways, Abdur-Rahkman was like this particular Wolverines team. He didn’t have many high-major scholarship offers, but he was a senior captain with a great assist-to-turnover ratio (4.48, which ranked second nationally and first in the Big Ten).

As he broke the huddle, Abdur-Rahkman told himself to forget the shot he had missed before and dismiss his 4-of-15 shooting performance on the night. He had a pass to catch.

Poole broke the same huddle, thinking Abdur-Rahkman would take whatever shot Michigan put up. He also had a confession to make later: he hadn’t really listened all that closely to Beilein in the huddle. He had dazed off, daydreaming almost, hearing just enough–Indiana–to know his assignment on the play.

Poole’s roommate, freshman forward Isaiah Livers, would throw the inbounds pass. That was obvious. Livers grew up in Michigan idolizing Tigers centerfielder Curtis Granderson. Such was his adoration that he can recall when Detroit traded Granderson to the Yankees in 2009, right down to where he was (home, in Kalamazoo) and how he felt (crushed).

Livers was similar to Granderson in that he played centerfield and pitched and wanted to play pro baseball. As Poole flicked his roommate’s ear in the locker room on Wednesday, Livers was saying he had made a deal with his father, Morris. If he received six scholarship offers in basketball, he would take one; if not, he’d pursue baseball and get his degree later. He did get six offers, exactly six offers, on the nose, then bid that baseball career goodbye.

So there Livers stood, on the baseline, with 3.6 seconds on the clock. The right arm that once threw baseballs faster than 90 miles an hour wound up, only in this instance, Livers could not move. Houston had declined to put a defender on Livers, knowing he had to throw flat-footed. And throw, he did.

Michigan had no timeouts. Livers had five seconds to make his toss. One … two … three … and he launched. Abdur-Rahkman had not been open initially, after drawing his defender and the extra one, but he was coming back toward Livers, who fired the pass in his direction because he had no other option. Livers father would later tell him that that’s why he wanted his son to play multiple sports growing up, for a pass like that, one that wouldn’t have been possible without his baseball pedigree.

Abdur-Rahkman had to cross half-court to grab the pass, and after he caught it, he turned and took two dribbles, then shifted his body to the right, where he spotted Poole along the wing, a short hop behind the three-point arc. Poole had been screaming Abdur-Rahkman’s nickname, Ham, over and over, like he was really hungry and specifically wanted some pork on that right wing.

Poole would later think back to something Beilein often tells his team before games. Who’s going to be the outlier tonight? In this case, perhaps, it would be the kid from Milwaukee who saw Burke’s shot back in 2013. Poole wasn’t a typical Beilein recruit. He oozed swagger, for one, exuding so much confidence in practice that teammates sometimes scuffled with him. And yet, it was hard to ignore his personality, the sheer force of it, the way that he played, which Beilein liked to describe in one word: fearless. Sure, Beilein often shook his head when he saw Poole dancing through another practice. But there was a lot to like about Poole, too. His mindset most of all. The one he relied on last Saturday.

Nobody knew it at the time, but as Poole rose for another last-second shot on the right wing, his right eye was watering and his vision was impaired. He had been poked in that eye earlier in the week, near the end of the Montana game, and he had to wear protective glasses this week when he met with reporters. Before he took the shot, he said his eye felt like “it had a filter” on it.

Regardless, here Poole was again, on the right wing, taking a three-pointer to win a game, legs splayed just like in that shot in high school. Only in the NCAA tournament, with a trip to the Sweet 16 at stake.

All the dots had led exactly to that moment. Poole didn’t know, necessarily, that the shot was going in. But it “didn’t feel bad” leaving his hands. His teammates said the next second unfolded in slow motion, as they watched and wondered, and when it dropped through the net, they erupted in celebration. It’s easy to forget watching the play that Poole is 18 as he takes that attempt, too young to know how much that moment should have scared him. His braces don’t come off until next August. He scored only eight points against the Cougars, but that was the most that Poole had registered since recording 12 against Maryland in late February. “People dream of stuff like that,” he said.

Teammates tackled Poole as referees tried to escort the Wolverines back to their bench so they could make certain that time had expired. The party resumed, though, in the locker room, where Michigan players doused Poole with so much water—a Poole party, apparently—that he pretended he was crying while wearing a soaked jersey.

Poole turned on his phone once the reporters left. He had 394 unread text messages and that number jumped instantly to 532. Roughly 25% of those missives were from numbers he didn’t recognize. Two texts came from his parents, Anthony and Monet. Mom sent over a gif of an excited cat, while dad tried to play it cool, typing out an understated “great shot.” By night’s end, Poole had gotten over 830 texts and responded to maybe 150 of them, before giving up as responders started to respond to his responses.

Later that night, Poole couldn’t sleep, so he finished a paper for his Greek Mythology class and whittled away the hours until finally nodding off at 5 a.m. He rose at 8:30—youth, man—and flew back to campus with the team and tried to grasp just how dramatically his life had changed. Livers joked that he couldn’t turn on the TV or scroll through Instagram without being inundated with Poole mania. Even the actor/comedian/director Jordan Peele was getting messages about the buzzer beater, and he played along, joking about how hard he had worked to make that moment possible.

The shot, Michigan assistants said, was even more incredible to watch on film than in person, given everything it took just for Poole to get the attempt off. It also underscored the way these Wolverines play basketball. They’re balanced and versatile and don’t feature anyone who scores more than Moritz Wagner, who averages 14.2 points. They’re only the fourth team in school history to top 30 wins, but those teams—the 1989 unit that won the national title, the 1993 Fab Five squad and the 2013 team that made the Final Four—were laden with NBA players.

This team is not those teams, but these Wolverines play great defense and don’t rely on any one scorer on any one night. That alone makes them dangerous. Plus, thanks to a tournament defined by upsets, they’re also the highest seed remaining on the left side of the bracket.

Poole is trying to move forward. He’d trade The Shot for a title any day. He even said that Michigan didn’t play its best basketball last week, that the Wolverines could execute better, that there’s room to grow en route to the Final Four. He’ll always have the buzzer beater, but that’s last week and this is this week. There are, of course, more dots to connect.

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