(2) Michigan Wolverines vs. (11) Tennessee Volunteers
The Michigan Wolverines didn’t have to draw a line in the sand seeing as it was already done for them. That line was a 20’9” arc, behind which they sunk the Tennessee Volunteers, along with a bevy of shots.
Michigan’s three-point barrage helped build just enough cushion to survive a late-game collapse and advance to the Elite Eight with a 73-71 win over Tennessee.
For better or worse, the Wolverines’ execution dictated Friday night’s game. In the first 30 minutes, their precision passing and manipulation of the Volunteers’ defense led to open looks from the perimeter.
“We shoot a lot of threes. If you follow us you’d know that. Usually we’re going to take what they give us,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I don’t anticipate much, except I try to anticipate how they’re going to guard us and they had a great plan. But we’re fortunate we did get some of those to drop, and we had some good drop‑offs inside to (Jordan Morgan) as well.”
Michigan patiently moved the ball back and forth, their opponents along with it, probing the defense until they were able to find teammates open looks, which were knocked down more often than not. One moment of brilliance came when Nik Stauskas was without his dribble and trapped by a defender. Stauskas shook his defender, tossed a pass of the backboard to himself, and then dished it to a teammate who got fouled beyond the arc and sank the three free throws.
The combination of patience and confidence got Michigan good looks—they shot 11-of-20 from distance—and a large lead.
Tennessee’s interior-focused attack struggled to keep pace with Michigan’s aerial assault for most of the game, and looked like it may be their downfall. However, it was reliable, and as Michigan began making mistakes late in the game Tennessee gradually cut the lead.
The Wolverines finished with 13 turnovers, many of which came down the stretch. The miscue with the most potential for harm came on one of the last plays of the game. With their lead crumbling, the Wolverines inbounded the ball; the player that caught it, though, stepped out of bounds in response to pressure from a Volunteers defender.
Down 71-72, Tennessee had a chance to win the game, but Jarnell Stokes committed an offensive foul in the post, where they’d gone all game long.
“I don’t think I fouled him. But it was a smart play for him to try to take the charge. He pretty much anticipated it,” Stokes said.
A line was drawn, and the side Tennessee picked happened to be the losing one Friday.
(4) Louisville Cardinals vs. (8) Kentucky Wildcats
Age before beauty, the adage goes.
The Louisville Cardinals had their run last year, when they emerged from the March Madness gauntlet (mostly) unscathed. This year the young Kentucky Wildcats are making their postseason mark to the chagrin of the Cardinals.
Kentucky trailed for most of the game before, despite being down key players, a frenetic finish nabbed them a 74-69 victory and Elite Eight berth.
The in-state rivalry began as a lopsided affair, with the more experienced Louisville running out to a quick lead. Mongok Mathiang and Montrezl Harrell punished the Wildcats inside, relentlessly pursuing rebounds and scoring on put-backs to add to the Cardinals’ tally.
Kentucky’s frontcourt was overwhelmed by the energy of Louisville’s bigs and the task of stopping them became even more difficult when Willie Cauley-Stein, who was limited to just four minutes of play, injured his ankle in the first half. The contest was clearly shifting in Louisville’s favor, but rather than fold, Kentucky battled back.
The pace continued to increase until both teams were feverishly responding to one another near game’s end.
Russ Smith, Louisville’s diminutive senior point guard, continually challenged Kentucky’s interior defense, never shying away from driving the ball and finishing in the paint with and without contact. He finished with 23 points, but missed a three with a chance to effectively send the game into overtime. Rick Pitino decided to go with his team’s leader, Smith, with the game on the line. Luke Hancock had been hitting shots throughout the second half—19 points on 6-of-9 shooting—but was overlooked on the final play.
“It wasn’t the best shot, but he’s sometimes very difficult when they’re long and they’re shot blockers. But you gotta give them credit, they defended the play well,” Pitino said. “We ran our offense beautifully most of the night. Just a couple down the stretch we just went one‑on‑one a little bit too much.”
Kentucky wasn’t left with much choice near the end of the game, and instead went with whomever they could find open. Players throughout the lineup delivered to hit crucial shots down the stretch, two of them underclassmen. Alex Poythress converted a three-point play to tie the game and Aaron Harrison knocked down a three from the corner to take the lead.
The Wildcats, many of which are freshmen and sophomores, have been forced to learn on the fly all season. They seem to be taking big leaps in maturity this postseason, peaking at the most opportune time, which should strike fear in their opponents, both young and old.
“We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason. That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve gotta take one game at a time,” Julius Randle said. “We carry momentum from the SEC Tournament and brought it to the NCAA tournament.”