Kentucky Rides Post-Play, Late Emergence of Shooters to Outlast Michigan

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.

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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.

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Florida vs. UCLA- Second Half Notes

Wilbekin (5) powered his team towards the end of the contest.

Wilbekin (5) powered his team towards the end of the contest.

-Gator guard Michael Frazier II lead the way for his team in terms of point-scoring (nine points) in the opening half, but as his sharpshooting performance translates into the second half, Frazier’s play takes on even greater significance; draining two threes within the first three minutes of the half pushed the lead to seven for the Gators, but in the greater scheme of things, Frazier has helped his team consistently retain a comfortable advantage over the Bruins throughout the game

-the Bruins have displayed great resolve in their first encounter with a double-digit deficit (at the 15:53 mark)

  • after a Bruins timeout, top regular season scorer Jordan Adams converts a layup and a three-pointer in a span of thirty seconds, cutting the Gator lead to six
  • this instance also highlights UCLA’s overall style of play and mentality in this matchup: continually playing from behind, but not allowing Florida to develop too much of a rhythm and hot streak in order to pull away–now the Bruins must pounce on an opportunity to further tighten this contest

-Florida’s foul trouble–center Patric Young and guard Casey Prather each a foul away from fouling out–really puts the squad out of its comfort zone; around the time of the absence of the two aforementioned players from the court, UCLA cuts Florida’s lead to 56-55 at the 10:04 mark, going on a 9-2 in a 2:05 span

-but the Gators respond in the most powerful of ways, jump-starting a 10-0 run themselves, stretching from the 10:04 to 5:34 marks in the second half

-Gator point guard Scottie Wilbekin leads the way in this impactful effort, as well as beyond the run and for the remainder of the game:

  • the experienced and tested senior has undoubtedly taken command late in the contest, beginning at 6:19, when he knocks down a triple; he then follows it up by converting a layup and free throw on the contact
  • Wilbekin then banks in a circus-shot in heavy traffic–that makes him 3-3 on field goals with eight points in the final seven minutes of the game
  • there cannot be a more auspicious sign for the Gators than for a senior like Wilbekin to rise up and ice the game; perhaps a newfound sense of mental strength of the senior core–unlike Florida’s previous Elite Eight teams–can now will the Gators further in the tournament than in the past seasons

Final Score: Florida 79 UCLA 68

 

Florida vs. UCLA- First Half Notes

Florida's Patric Young and UCLA's Travis Wear battle to win the opening tip in Thursday's Sweet Sixteen matchup. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Florida’s Patric Young and UCLA’s Travis Wear battle to win the opening tip in Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

-both teams start the game off playing very sloppy, indicated by the boxscore in terms of turnover numbers but also by a simple “eye test’; watching the game, one can observe the dysfunctional and messy play–it’s a frantic pace, that in the early-going, appeared more detrimental than productive for both teams (by the end of the first half, the teams have seven turnovers apiece)

-yet both the Gators and Bruins begin to settle into, and attain a feel for, the stage shortly after a sloppy set of opening minutes

  • UCLA composes itself first, even in time to grab a three-point lead at about seven minutes into the first half
  • effective and sharp ball movement on offense keys a Florida surge, allowing the Gators to impose themselves as the stronger team and the one which will seemingly possess the lead for the most part in this game; they embark on a 13-2 run in a 4:10 span midway through the opening half

-both UF and UCLA extremely willing to hoist up shots from seemingly anywhere near the three-point line; fits the “free style” exhibited by both squads in the opening half–UCLA starts to shy away from this tendency towards the end of the half

-despite a mid-first half surge by Florida, UCLA shows the ability to remain close with their opponents and fighting back from deficits it has faced; a balanced effort across the entire Bruin squad–six players have at least four points–has allowed it to keep pace with the tournament’s number one overall seed

-as the first half is in the books, Florida’s six-point advantage going into intermissions has come in large part due to three-point shooting–launching 13 shots from beyond the three-point line and converting five of them (compared to UCLA’s two), and a rebounding edge (a +7 margin in Florida’s favor)

-foul trouble (ten personal fouls for UCLA and eight for Florida) has also served as a hindrance to both teams’ tempos, possible bottling up explosiveness on both ends of the court

Halftime score: Florida 36 UCLA 30