ARLINGTON, Texas — Elijah Johnson’s best moment of an otherwise miserable game came with 6 minutes, 50 seconds left in regulation, a three-pointer from the left side that gave Kansas a 68-54 lead, its largest of the game.
At that point, a series of mistakes and bad decisions — all the way down to the final field-goal attempt in overtime — doomed the top-seeded Jayhawks to one of their most painful NCAA Tournament losses, 87-85 to No. 4 seed Michigan in the South Regional semifinals.
“We made some bonehead plays late,” is how senior guard Travis Releford described it.
Coach Bill Self used the same word several times as he picked apart the disaster.
The spiral started slowly. KU took a 10-point lead on Jeff Withey’s dunk with 2:52 remaining. The play was wonderfully executed, with crisp ball movement.
But this is where the bone-headedness started to kick in.
Johnson committed turnovers on the next two possessions. On the first, he got trapped in a double team on the baseline and tried to pass it out front to Withey, a 7-foot target. Johnson or the Kansas bench could have called timeout, but instead Johnson’s pass was deflected by Glenn Robinson III and taken for a dunk.
Less than a minute after the lead seemingly had reached a safe double-digit margin, the Wolverines now had new life, down 72-66 because they converted after Johnson had committed his second turnover, a backcourt violation.
All of which allowed Trey Burke to become the hero.
Burke, a candidate for national player of the year who dominated the second half, took over in the critical final minute. Burke scored eight points in the final 75 seconds, including the game-tying, 28-foot three-pointer that forced overtime and will be remembered as one of the biggest moments in Michigan’s basketball history.
“When Elijah Johnson missed, I knew we had a chance,” Burke said. “Coach called a play for me to go into the paint, but I knew we didn’t have much time left. I just stepped back and hit the shot.”
But Burke never would have had a chance to be a hero were it not for KU’s gaffes.
Burke’s big shot was set up when Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12.6 seconds remaining. Burke got off the shot because the Jayhawks didn’t switch defenders on a screen. Johnson, guarding Burke, wound up tangled with screen-setter Mitch McGary, and both wound up on the floor. Kevin Young arrived too late to bother the shot.
Self was asked if he considered fouling. The Jayhawks led by three. Burke took the shot with about seven seconds remaining.
“I’ll look back on that one,” Self said. “I wouldn’t have fouled with eight seconds left. Looking back now I wish we would have obviously. But that was not a difficult (screen) switch. We let him come off the screen naked and shoot it.”
But perhaps a moment that will live with the Jayhawks came a couple of possessions earlier. KU led 76-71 and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a three-pointer. The ball was loose on the floor. Ben McLemore appeared to have a chance to grab it, but Michigan was more aggressive. Robinson wound up with it and put it back to slice the Wolverines’ deficit to 76-73 with 28.9 seconds remaining.
“All we had to do was fall on the ball,” Self said. “The possession arrow was ours. We just didn’t do it.
“Seasons usually come down, if you’re a good team, to one possession, at least it has with us, almost every year. This wasn’t one possession, this was about five possessions we had to get a stop or create a jump ball or anything.”
Burke opened Michigan’s scoring in overtime with a three and scored on the next possession from 15 feet.
“We were determined the last five to seven minutes,” Burke said.
A day earlier, Self called Burke the nation’s best player. Nothing happened Friday to dissuade him. Even Burke’s scoreless first-half helped McGary come up big. McGary finished with season bests of 25 points and 14 rebounds.
“He took over,” Self said of Burke. “We went under screens a couple of times and let him get confidence, and the next thing you know it was his game.”
Capping a series of KU mistakes was the final play in overtime: Johnson drove to the basket and kicked out to Naadir Tharpe for an off-balance three-point attempt instead of taking a shot that could have tied the score.
“All we had to do was make one play,” Self said of the final moments of regulation and overtime. “We just didn’t do it.”
Ellis finishes strong — Perry Ellis, with a full head of steam, went after a loose ball that seemed destined to bounce out of bounds and off the risers that held up the court at Cowboys Stadium.
The 6-foot-8 Wichita Heights product leaped into the air and snagged the ball, whipping his head back and shooting the ball, underhand, to a streaking Ben McLemore for a layup and an assist to give the Jayhawks a 58-48 lead with 12:43 remaining.
“I threw it back and ended up standing on a table somehow and it started wiggling,” Ellis said. “I kept my balance. I was just trying to save the ball.”
Ellis, despite the Jayhawks’ 87-85 overtime loss, continued his late-season surge with 8 points, 5 rebounds and three assists in 15 minutes, filling in for senior Kevin Young when Young ran into foul trouble.
“Just a lot of mental breakdowns for us, a lot of loose balls we didn’t get to and a lot of missed defensive assignments,” Ellis said. “I feel like we let our seniors down.”
WIth an eye to the future, Ellis must now try to build on what seemed like an awakening for the McDonald’s All-American in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments.
“As a freshman, you don’t really understand what’s happening at first but then things start to come into focus,” Ellis said. “I’ve just been worried about this season, but there’s nothing we can do now. It’s really time for us to figure out what we’re going to do for next year and get back to work.”