If there was any doubt left that this wasn’t Michigan’s night, that doubt was erased in the game’s final minute, when the Wolverines had three separate chances to tie or take the lead - and came up empty all three times. Why the Wolverines settled for three-pointers on every possession, or why the ball was in the hands of two players who combined to shoot two-for-17 on the night could be debated. Whether or not this was Michigan’s night could not.
After the game, Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said that Michigan got the looks it wanted at the end, and in fairness to Howard, all three were relatively good looks. But emblematic of the Wolverines’ night, all three shots went astray and the Wolverines found themselves on the wrong end of a heartbreaking, 51-49 defeat.
But this isn’t the story of an instant classic, back-and-forth affair that went down to the game’s final seconds. This is the story of a Michigan team that battled but couldn’t get on track all night. A Michigan team that, in its biggest game of the season, played one of its worst games of the season. And credit UCLA for much of that.
For the first time in the tournament, Michigan faced a team that was as prepared to face Michigan as Michigan was to face it. The first time Michigan faced a team that played defense with similar intensity and fervor. UCLA set the game’s pace, slowed down the action, and with its defensive pressure, kept Michigan from ever getting comfortable.
As a result, Michigan never got into an offensive flow. Despite its size advantage, Michigan never looked comfortable nor was it particularly successful getting the ball inside to seven-foot freshman Hunter Dickinson. Michigan uncharacteristically stood around a lot offensively. Gone was the freewheeling, pass-happy offense that was on display most of the season. Gone was the offensive spacing, the ball movement and the extra passes to open teammates. Gone was any kind of flow or rhythm. And ultimately, gone was any chance of advancing to the Final Four.
In a mostly stagnant offense, Michigan recorded only 12 assists and was held to a season low 49 points on 39% shooting.
It was a frustrating night to be sure, but it’s not as if Michigan mailed it in. Despite their offensive woes, the Wolverines battled defensively all night. They weren’t able to do much to slow down UCLA’s electric Johnny Juzang, who accounted for 28 of the Bruins’ 51 points (including 14 of their first 16 points), but as a whole, the Wolverines held the Bruins to 39% shooting (23% from beyond the arc) and won the battle of the boards.
And the Wolverines may have struggled offensively, but they fought back from a nine-point second half deficit to take the lead. With a little more than five minutes remaining, Michigan tied the game on a Chaundee Brown three-pointer. Michigan wouldn’t make another field goal the rest of the game.
In the end, Michigan wasn’t able to overcome the poor shooting nights of Mike Smith (1/7) and Franz Wagner (1/10), and shot themselves in the foot far too often. The Wolverines turned the ball over 14 times (to UCLA’s eight turnovers), missed nearly half of their free throw attempts and missed lay-up after lay-up. In a two-point game, giving up that many scoring opportunities is difficult to overcome.
When Michigan suffered its last NCAA tournament loss, in humbling fashion to Texas Tech two years ago, then-head coach John Beilein said the message in the post-game locker room was, “This game shouldn’t define who we are.” The same is true of this team and this loss. It was a disappointing game and an agonizing finish, but it doesn’t invalidate what was a special season in Ann Arbor.
Picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, Michigan was atop of the conference standings from start to finish en route to its first regular season conference championship since 2013. For the majority of the season, Michigan wasn’t just playing well, it was looking good doing so.
Transfers Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown came to Michigan, in large part, because they wanted to win. And to a large part, because of them, Michigan did just that. Together with seniors Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks and Austin Davis and the contributions of Wagner and a precocious freshman, Michigan was one of the surprise stories of the college basketball season. But it was a season that ultimately ended a game short of the Final Four promised land.
There’s an old adage that only one team finishes the tournament with a victory and thus only one team finishes the season truly happy. And that’s true. But all losses are not created equal and this one stings more than most. Opportunities to advance to the Final Four don’t come easy or often, and Michigan had an excellent opportunity this season to do just that. That Michigan played one of its worst games of the season in its biggest moment - and failed on three chances to salvage victory in the game’s final minute - will hurt.
“It’s going to be tough to sleep tonight,” a dejected Howard said after the game. The same could undoubtedly be said for Michigan fans everywhere.