The fans were up and the joint was rocking and this beauty of a basketball game between the 'Cats and Michigan was tied at 49 and roaring toward its conclusion. Out of a time out they came, the 'Cats with the ball and 1:25 remaining, and here there was one pass, then another, some eight passes in all, and finally, with one minute left, John Shurna rose up along the right baseline and offered a 15-footer. It missed, but his teammate Reggie Hearn collected the offensive rebound and now came more passes, a plethora of passes, and then Hearn was driving. "We wanted him to drive it," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later said. "Reggie's been successful with that before. But he just didn't think it was there."
"The play was for me to drive the baseline," said Hearn himself. "But one thing Michigan was doing pretty well all night was forcing middle. I thought (Wolverine guard Zack) Novak had a good angle on me and going baseline wouldn't have been advantageous. So I just tried to make something out of it."
He did that by kicking out to JerShon Cobb on the left wing and from there, with the shot clock at two, the sophomore guard put up a three. He too missed, just as Shurna had before him, and here Wolverine Trey Burke grabbed the rebound and was crowded by 'Cat Davide Curletti and started to teeter out-of-bounds and just managed to call time out before committing that turnover.
Now 24.3 seconds remained and here, after the Wolverines burned all but 4.7 of them and with one to give, 'Cat Alex Marcotullio fouled Burke. Michigan coach John Beilein called a time out, then Carmody did the same, and finally Burke had the ball again, this time three steps out from the top of the arc. "We wanted Trey to turn that corner and make something happen," Beilein would later say, but he couldn't do that with Cobb right in his grill. So he pulled back and Hearn, arms high, jumped out toward him, and Burke threw up a three and it was an air ball and this one went spinning into overtime.
There were no small stakes on the table Tuesday night when No. 11 Michigan dropped by Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was looking to stay in contention for the Big Ten title, the 'Cats were looking to gild their NCAA Tournament resume, and that promised an evening filled with fury and emotion and surges that carried its audience on an exhilarating roller coaster ride.
That, in fact, is just what occurred, the Wolverines surging first and going up a half-dozen, the 'Cats then switching from man to their 1-3-1 zone and clawing back into a tie. This all unfolded in the game's first 13 minutes and already this one had transformed into a cerebral chess match as well as a physical fray. For here were the Wolverines, so defensively sound, closing down the 'Cats three-point game, and there were the 'Cats, so able to adapt, attacking the post more than usual.
"You've got to make choices with them," Beilein later said, explaining his strategy. "Their three-point game is as good as anybody's, and we try to learn from each time we play them. It's such a challenge. We try to learn from the way they play and try to make some adjustments. I don't think I'm going to share anything in particular except make 'em make twos. Make 'em make twos."
"They switch everything, but other teams do that also," said Carmody, when asked why it is so difficult to get an open three against the Wolverines. "I thought they did a pretty nice job of it. It think that was it. It also seemed, early on, John (Shurna, his star), the whole game he was reluctant to do anything. He had some pretty good looks, and he passed them up to go to the next thing, the next thing. It was a day he had to take over, I thought. I don't know. They switched and they switched well."
So the 'Cats, who average 23.2 three-point attempts per-game, did not have their weapon of choice available to them. They would, in fact, try just seven of them in the first half and 16 of them in the game and make only three (for an 18.8 shooting percentage). But here their counter was effective, Hearn posting up or driving, Curletti working the blocks and attacking, and as the first half unfolded their lead slowly built, built until it was seven at halftime.
Early in that first half, just over two minutes into it, play was stopped after 'Cat Drew Crawford emerged from a scrum in obvious pain. He would here leave the game, return less than 60 seconds later, play 17 of this half's 20 minutes and 10 more in the second. But at 6:57 of regulation he sat down and never returned. "They just told me he couldn't go," explained Carmody, who did not know the severity of the forward's injury. (Neither Crawford nor Shurna was later brought out for interviews.)
That was one reality that turned this game and another was a change the Wolverines made to blunt the inside attack that had served the 'Cats so well. "I think they were a little more physical," explained Hearn, who did not miss a shot all night and finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds. "You saw at the start of the second half, I posted up, tried to go baseline and stepped out of bounds. They were just physical. You've got to give some credit to their defense."
That same defense, which Shurna had dented for 10 first-half points, now smothered him as well, shutting him out for over 17 minutes and holding him to just four points after halftime. "Our defense on him was good. We had multiple guys guard him. We did some different things we feel you have to do," explained Beilein. "I had the kid (Kevin) Pittsnogle (when he coached) at West Virginia, tremendous player, tremendous teams, and you cannot do certain things. They're just too good. They'll just knock it in. So we really tried to do some things that would not allow him to feel comfortable even in the NBA range."
All of that combined to pull his team back into this game, but still, still, the 'Cats went up two at 3:38 when Hearn buried a flat-footed three from the right of the arc. Then they were up four when Shurna got his first second-half basket at 2:42, and up three when he answered a Wolverine three with a 10-footer that fell as he hit the deck. But here, at 1:41, Wolverine Tim Hardaway Jr. buried a three over the zone from the left corner, which produced the tie that would remain unbroken through regulation's last frenzied seconds.
The 'Cat 1-3-1 zone can flummox less-schooled foes, but it is a defense Beilein used when he coached at West Virginia and so he is well attuned to its nuances. "Knowing that zone, it's really tough to drive the ball to the basket," he would later explain. "What you have to have, it's not schematic. It's a bunch of guys who can see the floor and can all pass and are going to be selfless in their game. We had to spread the floor and rely on them to play basketball. We've got a good enough shooting team that we can make those shots eventually."
Now, in overtime, his Wolverines did make those shots. They got a three from Burke after a Shurna miss. They got a three from Novak after a Cobb miss. They got a three from Stu Douglass after another Shurna miss. They got those threes in less than three minutes, and now the 'Cats were desperate and reduced to fouling and on their way to again losing to the Wolverines in overtime. Still, Reggie Hearn was soon saying, "I think we'll be fine. We still have a lot to play for, definitely.
"This is a tough loss. But we're going to look at it as we fought hard, we lost to a good team, we had a chance to get a resume-building win, we didn't get it. But there's still a lot left to play for."