March Sadness


Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison, in blue, shoots the game-winning three-pointer over Michigan guard Caris LeVert in the Wildcats’ 75-72 Elite Eight victory. Sam Upshaw, The Courier-Journal

“No. Freaking. Way.” A 16-year-old high school junior named Lyric Kleber is terrified as he watches a 19-year-old college freshman named Aaron Harrison take a shot.

The shot spins, with the kind of spin that only a perfect shooter is able to coax out of the basketball. Michigan guard Caris LeVert jumps up in defense, but it is useless. The ball snaps the bottom of the net, and in a snap, an entire state’s basketball dreams are sentenced to die.

This shot, with 2.6 seconds left on the clock, led Harrison’s Kentucky Wildcats to a 75-72 Elite Eight win over the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday. With the victory, Kentucky assured that no team from Michigan would make the coveted Final Four.

The state of Michigan entered the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with high hopes. Three teams, Michigan Michigan State and Western Michigan, qualified for the tournament. For 2-seed U of M and 4-seed MSU, the tourney was no great surprise; they have combined to make 49 tournament appearances.

Local favorite and 14-seed Western Michigan was a different story, however. The team was making their first tournament appearance since 2004. Many in Kalamazoo, like junior Andrew Blinkiewicz, wanted the Broncos to shock the world against powerhouse Syracuse.

“They’re a local college, and my parents are both alumni,” Blinkiewicz said. “It would have been nice to see [Broncos center] Shayne Whittington, with all that pro potential, advance.”

Yet the dreams of Blinkiewicz and many other Kalamazooans were swiftly, if unsurprisingly, crushed, when Syracuse throttled the Broncos 77-53.

Michigan and Michigan State seemed primed to save the reputation of the Great Lakes State, however.

A 93-78 rocking of Delaware, a seven-point win over Harvard, and a two-point thriller over #1 seed Virginia placed Michigan State, led by star forward Adreian Payne, in prime position to reach the Final Four. All they had to do was defeat guard Shabazz Napier and 7-seed Connecticut.

Michigan’s route was somewhat easier. A blowout of tiny Wofford College, a 14-point win over Texas, and a tight victory against 11-seed Tennessee placed Michigan in an Elite Eight matchup against Kentucky and Aaron Harrison.

Because of the way that the brackets were set up, two more wins by each team would mean an all-Michigan National Championship game. Fans, such as junior Aaron Eshleman, salivated over a Michigan-MSU fight on the biggest stage in college basketball.

“It would have been fun to see what would have happened at school. Kids get so heated for their teams,” Eshleman said.

All of this pressure to establish state dominance might have led to the teams’ downfalls. A poor performance by point guard Keith Appling and awful team shooting led to a 60-54 Michigan State loss. Many analysts, such as ESPN’s Jay Bilas, errantly picked MSU to win the national championship.

Michigan’s loss three hours later was perhaps more heartbreaking. The game was intense, tied at halftime, and tied again in the final seconds. Freshman forward Aaron Harrison took the shot, squared up, and hit the dagger that sent a state into shock. Wolverines fan Lyric Kleber couldn’t believe his team lost in such a gut-wrenching manner.

“I watched that shot and was just like… no. I felt poopy,” Kleber said.

In the future, perhaps Michiganders will feel less poopy, and feel good about the fact that one-quarter of the teams in the 2014 Elite Eight were from their home state.

As of right now, however, it’s March Sadness in Michigan. Even some rival MSU fans wish Aaron Harrison’s perfect shot had never gone in, so someone could have represented this state in the Final Four.