Michigan coach John Beilein summed up his team’s championship loss to Villanova rather succinctly. “We lost to a team that was better than us,” Beilein told reporters after the game, adding, “We needed to play better, but even if we had played our best, it would have been very difficult to win that game with what (Donte) DiVincenzo did.” Duncan Robinson echoed his coach’s sentiments, saying of Villanova, “They were clearly a lot better than us. But the ultimate goal is right there and you just sort of fall on your face, quite honestly. It hurts because we didn’t play our best.”
Michigan didn’t fall on its face. In fact, far from it. But it also didn’t play its best basketball. There is no shame in losing, particularly to this Villanova team. Villanova is a well-coached, experienced and balanced team that has six legitimate scorers and nearly as many NBA prospects. But knowing that the Wolverines didn’t play their best basketball in the season’s biggest moment stung, something that was evident in the post-game locker room. Because as Robinson also said, “That’s not something you can get back.”
Monday’s championship game played out similarly to most of Michigan’s tournament games. The Wolverines struggled offensively, particularly from the three-point line, but played well on the defensive end. In Michigan’s five tournament games leading up to the title game, with the exception of its 99-62 romp over Texas A&M in the round of 16, Michigan’s defensive effort was enough to keep the Wolverines in the game long enough for the offense to eventually come around and make enough plays to ultimately tilt the game in Michigan’s favor. Survive and advance, the saying goes, and Michigan raised that to an art form.
That wasn’t the case against Villanova, however.
That’s not to say Michigan didn’t play tough defense. Villanova coach Jay Wright said after the game that Michigan did some things that the Wildcats weren’t prepared for, and it showed. Villanova looked uncomfortable early on, running awkward offensive sets and committing uncharacteristic turnovers. Even as the Wildcats adjusted, Michigan continued to battle defensively. Zavier Simpson largely contained Jalen Brunson, holding the national player of the year to nine points on four of 13 shooting. It was the only time all this season that Brunson was held to single-digits in scoring. But part of what makes Villanova so difficult to contain is that the Cats have so many players that can impact a game. Villanova is one of the nation’s best offensive teams, in large part, because of its depth and number of scoring options. But on this night, the Cats needed only one option, super-sub Donte DiVincenzo, who turned in one of the greatest title game performances of all time and turned the game around in the process.
After the game, DiVincenzo said he didn’t come into the game expecting to, or even looking to score, instead explaining that he sees his role as bringing energy to the Wildcats. Monday night that energy was more like ferocity. DiVincenzo exploded for 18 first half points off the bench, flipping the score from a seven-point deficit to a nine-point halftime advantage. DiVincenzo added 13 more points in the second half to hold the Wolverines at bay, finishing with a career-high 31 points.
And they weren’t quiet points.
When DiVincenzo made his one-man run in the first half, Michigan wasn’t able to respond, and that was the game in a nutshell. The Wolverines had their chances. Had open looks. Had good opportunities. But the shots wouldn’t fall. The passes went astray. Instead of keeping pace, the Wolverines watched their lead evaporate, one DiVincenzo bucket at a time. In the second half, DiVincenzo flipped the script and turned counter-puncher. Every time Michigan put together a couple of baskets and threatened to make a run, DiVincenzo answered, usually with a dagger of a three-pointer, where he was five of seven for the game.
In the hours leading up to Monday’s championship game, a veteran sportswriter described DiVincenzo as a “killer,” and that’s exactly what he was. So much so, that for the first time in the tournament and one of the few times all season, Michigan’s defense got out of sync. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said after the game that it’s tough when someone is in a rhythm the way DiVincenzo was, that as a defender, “You’re always on your heels.” There were moments when Michigan wasn’t as decisive defensively, caught between guarding straight-up and helping out, and Villanova, particularly DiVincenzo, took advantage.
And while DiVincenzo was finding his rhythm, Michigan was searching for its. When Villanova adjusted and made life more difficult for Mo Wagner, secondary options were hard to come by for Michigan. Abdur-Rahkman did his best to keep Michigan in the game, finishing his career with a team-high 23 points, most of which came on forays to the basket, but it wasn’t enough.
Ultimately, it was Michigan’s outside shooting that did in the Wolverines. For the second consecutive game, Michigan connected on just two of 13 first half threes. Unlike the Loyola game, however, the Wolverines weren’t able to snap out of their shooting funk in the second half, making just one of ten for a total of three of 23 for the game. DiVincenzo’s game for the ages or not, it’s hard to overcome shooting 13% from beyond the arc.
Michigan’s players were understandably emotional after the game, understandably downbeat. Not only because Michigan lost, but also because the players knew that their run with this team was over, knew that they wouldn’t get another chance together. The time will come when this team will appreciate its accomplishments. The back-to-back Big Ten championships and Final Four run will be remembered fondly. But that time was not Monday night. Monday night was about missed opportunities and what could have been.