Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Darius Morris remembers the final seconds of Michigan’s 2011 second-round matchup against Duke.
When the 2011 NCAA Tournament began, everybody was talking about Michigan basketball for the first time in a long time. Not because of our team or what we did to make the tournament, but because The Fab Five, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the legendary Michigan teams in the early 1990s, had dropped that week.
One of the biggest storylines in the film was the Michigan-Duke rivalry, so when we beat Tennessee by 30 in the first round to set up a second-round matchup vs. Duke, it wouldn’t be just another tournament game.
Duke was a No. 1 seed and the defending champion, while we were able to secure a No. 8 seed. The expectations were never that high for us. We were projected to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten going into the season, and we were still in the basement about halfway through the year. Most people picked us to lose in a 9-8 upset to Tennessee, but we know how that turned out.
So naturally, nobody gave us a chance against No. 1 Duke.
Despite what the experts were saying, we knew we belonged. We knew we could beat Duke. We expected to win every time we stepped on the court. We were out to prove everybody wrong.
We hung with them throughout the first half and trailed by four at halftime, but in the second half, Duke pulled away. They led by as many as 15 at one point, but we never backed down. I remember coming out of a timeout and saying that no matter what, we weren’t going to quit.
Slowly, we got back into it. By the time we got inside four minutes, we had cut the lead to eight. I’ll never forget looking over to the bench and seeing Coach K take of his jacket because he was so mad we were coming back. That’s when I knew we had all the momentum.
The game was in Charlotte, North Carolina, just a couple of hours from Durham, so the stands were loaded with Duke fans. It was basically a road game. But when there were two minutes left and we were within four, that gym got pretty quiet.
Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a big three to make it a one-point game, but Kyrie Irving answered with a floater to give Duke a three-point lead with just over 30 seconds left.
That’s when I jumped into the spotlight.
After a timeout, I took the inbounds pass in the backcourt and beat Nolan Smith off the dribble for a layup.
We fouled Nolan Smith on the inbounds pass and he went to the line to shoot two. He made the first. Two-point game. Worst-case scenario, he’d hit the second and we’d be down by three with time to get the ball back downcourt for a game-tying shot. But Coach Beilein made it clear that if he missed, we’d go for two and the tie. We’d win it in overtime.
I can still see vividly in my mind what happened next — like it was yesterday. The second free throw rimmed out, and my teammate Zack Novak got the board and found me for the outlet pass. I sprinted as fast as I could up the court with Nolan Smith backpedaling in front of me and Ryan Kelly waiting in the paint.
I blew past Nolan at the three-point line and pulled up before Ryan, just inside the free throw line.
I hit the same exact in-between floater at the beginning of the game for our first two points. That one rattled in, and this one felt just as good. I was confident it was going in. When it went up, everything got really slow, and you could tell by the look on the Duke players’ faces that they thought it was going in too. It seemed like it was up there forever.
Then, when it came down, it rimmed out, and the whole world sped back up.
It happened that fast. The buzzer sounded. Season over.
It was awful. I left like I let my team down. I knew I was a big part of our comeback, but as a competitor, especially against a No. 1 seed like Duke in the NCAA Tournament, missing a shot like that hurts.
I’ll never forget that shot. I still use it for motivation. I’ve hit a lot of big shots, but that would have been the biggest shot of my life. It just didn’t drop. I’ve spent a long time thinking what would have happened had that shot gone in.
After the game, Coach K said in his press conference that I was one of the best point guards in the nation. To have a coach of his caliber acknowledge me — an opposing player — in that way was a classy gesture, and that gave me the confidence that although I may have missed an opportunity, many more would come my way.
I don’t mind talking about that shot. The beauty of March Madness is that you create memories. Even though most of the key players from that game, including me, are in the NBA now, we still talk about that play. When I see a Duke player like Kyrie Irving, Ryan Kelly or even Mason Plumlee, who’s now my teammate in Brooklyn, we re-live that moment. They all tell me they thought it was going in.
That Duke game happened exactly one week after The Fab Five aired. It was still fresh in people’s minds, and they were remembering how great Michigan basketball used to be.
Since the last remaining member of The Fab Five, Jimmy King, left Michigan in 1995, the Wolverines had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times, and they never got out of the second round. In the three seasons after our game against Duke, we made the NCAA Tournament each year, reaching the Elite Eight twice and even getting back to the National Championship game for the first time since The Fab Five made it in 1993.
And it all started with what we did in that 2011 tournament.
I may have missed that shot, and we may have lost the game, but as a team, we accomplished one of our most important goals: We helped put Michigan basketball back on the map.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.