By Luke Srodulski
Special to CBSChicago.com
INDIANAPOLIS (CBS) — Nik Stauskas answered question after question with his eyes red from tears. Caris LeVert sat alone in the bustling locker room, completely silent unless a reporter sat down next to him. Lone senior Jordan Morgan reflected on the end of his very productive college career.
The Michigan Wolverines showcased a wide range of emotions following their 75-72 loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight on Sunday evening. They went from disappointment in the loss to pride in what they had accomplished. But one thing that wasn’t seen was any leftover energy or fight. That was left on the court at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That makes the loss a lot easier to take. Coach John Beilein and his team didn’t leave feeling like they had underachieved or been mistreated by the officials. On Sunday night, Kentucky was just better, and the Wildcats probably could’ve beaten anyone in the country.
“It was a great college basketball game,” Beilein said. “I think (it was) well-officiated. Both teams really played well. I think even the people that were sitting in the highest seats got their money’s worth today.”
Michigan certainly did its part to make it worth its while. Stauskas drove to the basket fearlessly. LeVert flew out of bounds in pursuit of a loose ball. Glenn Robinson III drilled multiple clutch shots. Morgan fought with all he had to contain Kentucky’s mammoth front line, and when he needed a breather, Jon Horford stepped right in.
But maybe this is where it was supposed to end. Maybe this was the Wolverines’ ceiling. This was a team without its preseason All-American power forward, Mitch McGary, going against Midwest Regional MVP and potential No. 1 overall pick Julius Randle.
Don’t tell the Wolverines that, though. The faces in that locker room showed that they truly believed they were capable of winning it all. But instead of dwelling on that, they should focus on how they made more of this season than anyone thought possible.
“For us to start off the way we did in non-conference and then grow throughout the season and mature to get this far and being just a couple of seconds away from back-to-back Final Fours is truly amazing,” McGary said.
The same team that lost to Charlotte (which finished 17-14) in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off became the first team to win the Big Ten by at least three games since Michigan State did so five years ago.
But on this night, the supreme talent of the Wildcats shone through. Randle was tough enough to handle down low, but then Kentucky coach John Calipari pulled a five-star recruit, Marcus Lee, off the bench like it was no big deal. And Lee played like an NBA lottery pick.
This game was about Michigan playing to its full potential and putting on a show. It was also about Kentucky doing exactly the same. The Wildcats’ best proved to be a little better, just a deep, contested game-winning 3-pointer from Aaron Harrison better.
No shame in that. The Wolverines gave it all they had. In that, the players, coaches and the Wolverine faithful can take solace.
“We are a tough team, and we know what it takes to win,” Horford said. “Kentucky did a little better than us tonight, and that’s all there is to it.”