It took a half for the Kentucky to truly realize its paint-presence potential, amidst a horrid performance by its shooters for the better part of the game. But domination of all that surpassed near the basket–on both ends of the court–in the second half set Wildcat shooters loose. One of them was star freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who blossomed in the final 10 minutes of play and drained a go-ahead three in the waning seconds to give Kentucky a 75-72 victory over the Michigan Wolverines, and an unexpected berth in the Final Four.
Before any last-second heroics though, the Midwest Regional final was determined by in-game developments in the low block, and with particular respect to how the Wildcats functioned in it. Going into the game, Kentucky seemingly possessed an advantage in the paint, but the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle injury) called this notion into question. Though Kentucky’s highly touted big man primarily makes his presence felt most around the basket, his athleticism gives him the ability to close out on opponents’ jump-shots–a skill that could have been especially useful against Michigan and its fantastic shooters.
But the emergence of the unheralded and lanky forward Marcus Lee–fittingly another freshman factor for the Wildcats–quickly dispelled any doubts about Kentucky’s potential for low-block supremacy. In filling the void created by Cauley-Stein, Lee first asserted himself with a put-back dunk at the 14:16 mark, that proved particularly important as Kentucky was already in a 11-4 hole. The rest of his scoring followed in similar fashion, as Lee tallied 10 points, four offensive boards, and a block at the half, and added four more rebounds and another block in the final 20 minutes of play.
Lee’s first put-back dunk stimulated his team, as it continued to fight back against early-game deficits with effective scoring in the post; by 11:05, all eight of Kentucky’s baskets had come around the hoop, and the team did not even convert a shot outside the paint until 12 minutes and 48 seconds into the contest.
Yet in a 15-5 run by the Wildcats in the final five minutes of the half, the team relied on more than just its scoring in the paint to fuel a game-tying surge. A multifaceted approach to netting points–comprised of free throws, jumpers inside and beyond the arc, and of course post-scoring–showed early signs of the dominant post-game’s positive effect on other aspects of the offense.
Trailing for all of the opening half, Kentucky now entered the break knotted with the Wolverines at 37, and held advantages in rebounding totals (17-12) and momentum. A pivotal moment then occurred within the first minute of the next half, as Michigan’s top big man–Jordan Morgan–picked up his third foul at 19:35 and took a seat on the bench. Michigan knew well before the game that it could not afford such a loss due to its lack of size, and for the remainder of the first 10 minutes of the second half, its weaknesses were exploited, and worries realized.
During this span of time, Kentucky asserted itself in the paint stronger than it ever had before in the contest: the stretch consisted of 12 points in the paint, eight defensive rebounds, seven offensive boards, and three blocks. The Wildcats appeared to be on the brink of definitively pulling away at several points in this time, but Michigan’s shooting ability far from the low block allowed it to stay close and even grab a lead for 3:31.
After the Wolverines possessed a 55-53 lead, and what would eventually be their last one at the 8:54 mark, a basket by Julius Randle (who finished with a valuable 16 points and 11 rebounds) incited a 9-0 run that lasted for nearly three minutes. The streak was broken up by a three-pointer by Wolverine Glenn Robinson III, who played the central role in Michigan’s comeback charges, scoring eight points in the final six minutes.
Yet as the game winded down, it was Michigan’s defense that faltered more than any other unit on the floor, and in effect negated any productive efforts and surges by the team’s offense. Moreover, it became more than just yielding uncontested shots near the basket.
As Kentucky’s post players affirmed their stranglehold in the paint, the team’s shooters–notably the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron–consequently settled into a shooting groove, and dictated the game’s flow late. Of course it’s impossible to truly quantify such a correlation, but it’s not far off to think that as Kentucky controlled the paint with an even greater force as the second half progressed, the team’s shooters were positively influenced and played more freely as a result.
As such, Andrew and Aaron Harrison appeared much more comfortable in the late stages of the game, and they combined for 14 points in the final 10 minutes. Aaron had the much more significant impact on the game of the two brothers, as in the final 8:08 he drained four three-pointers, none bigger than the one with three seconds left to win the game for his team. The cliched phrase “cool, calm, and collected” would not quite suffice for depicting Aaron late in the contest; only the highest form of basketball praise–the characterization as “clutch”–would do justice.