The role of the dramatic escaping finalist has a long, sporadic legacy in the NCAA tournament, from Christian Laettner to Edney and beyond, and it does have a representative here. Michigan, which trailed Houston by two with 3.6 seconds left March 17, finds itself still practicing, meeting, playing and studying tape of Villanova for the final Monday night of the season, a reminder that this event remains mad.
To recap, Houston missed three free throws in the last 25 seconds, Isaiah Livers inbounded from yonder to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman near midcourt, Abdur-Rahkman dribbled leftward and passed rightward over to Jordan Poole, and Poole, a freshman not even born until June 1999, let fly for a 64-63 win.
“Grateful,” Michigan guard Zavier Simpson said.
“Just how lucky we are,” Abdur-Rahkman said.
“We could have been practicing for next season, but instead we’re practicing for the national championship,” Simpson said.
Even for a 65-year-old coach, this kind of ludicrous reality can take some years to process and accept. In his 11 seasons at Michigan, John Beilein has reached a national title game — in 2013 via Trey Burke dribbling down the floor, veering to the left, stopping and launching from downtown Dallas with 4.2 seconds left to squeeze into an overtime with Kansas. He also has seen Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison propel in a three-point shot with an improbable arc from downtown Indianapolis with 2.3 seconds left in the Elite Eight to beat Michigan the next year.
So chaotic are the circumstances that Beilein on Sunday referred forgivably to a game that did not occur. He recalled Villanova’s 2016 national champions defeating Saint Joseph’s in overtime in the round of 64 in Buffalo. Actually, it had been Connecticut’s seventh-seeded 2014 national champions who trailed Saint Joseph’s by three with 40 seconds left in the round of 64 in Buffalo, then got a three-point play via an offensive rebound, went to overtime, won, won five more games and hauled home the trophy.
“We’re here right now with Poole’s shot, too,” Beilein said, as if anyone needed reminding.
Continuing: “It’s not the best team [that wins]. It’s a time that funny bounces of the ball will determine the champion. And that’s why we love it. We just absolutely love it. And things could turn a game just like that. And so we’ve had those breaks. It’s been an incredible year for Michigan with very few injuries, a ton of breaks to this point. And I feel guilty sometimes about some of the games we won because we just had this grace fall on us all of a sudden.
“But at the same time, it’s gone the other way many times for some of our teams, and you beat yourself up as a coach, and, ‘What could I have done?’ But as I get more experience in this game, I realize that’s what it’s about, and you can’t do anything about those things.”
Sixteen nights after Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson said some telltale March words — “For 39 minutes and 57 seconds, I thought we were the better team” — Michigan will find itself trying to sort out Villanova’s frightening shooters as half of the final two. Poole has had two weeks of reliving his shot, absorbing the sensation it has caused, especially among a Michigan fan base more populous than certain smallish countries.
He and others relived it again at their lockers Sunday.
Two lockers down from Poole came a remembrance from the bench, which often lives with agony. Naji Ozeir, a 6-foot-7 freshman, assessed the mood at that moment just before everything turned, just before Livers set to inbound. “For some reason, I was really confident,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I was really confident that something would happen to turn our way.”
He had noticed Poole and Ibi Watson checking into the game, and remembered all the “clutch shots in practice” Poole had hit. (You know you’re a serious program when you have clutch shots in practice.) “I’ll tell you,” Ozeir said, “the one moment was when the shot was in the air. We’re all just, like, praying that it was going in. . . . It’s crazy to think, in five minutes we could be in the locker room crying, or in five minutes we could be in the locker room throwing water on our coaches. It’s crazy.”
“Probably,” Ozeir soon said of that moment, “if somebody pushed me over, I wouldn’t even feel it.”
“It’s kind of blurry in my mind, personally,” Poole said. “But when I look at the play and being able to remember that I hit the shot and having, obviously, videos and stuff, it was cool. I just remember begging for the ball. Actually one thing that I do remember is [Abdur-Rakhman] had four people on him. I remember him passing the ball, and then . . .”
And then: “Everything gets a little bit blurry. It’s definitely a little here and there.”
As a reminder that this whole national habit is more than a little here and there, on Monday night at the Alamodome, Michigan will be here.
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