February 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Heartbreak leaves U-M a much-needed win shy of NCAAs

Tim Hardaway Jr. dejectedly stares after a loss that damages Michiganís chances of making the NCAA Tournament. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

Ann Arbor -- If a season can come down to one play and one shot, this was it for Michigan, a heave that didn't come from the heavens. It came from beyond the 3-point line, banking off the glass and through the net, the biggest crusher in a season loaded with them.

Wisconsin beat Michigan, 53-52, as time expired Wednesday night, and now the Wolverines must hope something larger didn't expire too. In some ways, Michigan actually showed its NCAA Tournament worth with a tense, grinding performance against the 12th-ranked Badgers.

In other ways, the Wolverines showed their youth, missing free throws, a nasty flaw that won't go away. But really, there's no sense over-analyzing this one. Wisconsin hit a prayer, a 23-footer by freshman Josh Gasser as the Crisler Arena crowd went silent, and now Michigan's NCAA chances need a prayer.

It isn't over yet, not for a team that has been hot the past three weeks, but a bid just dropped from possible to major peril. The Wolverines are 17-12 (7-9 Big Ten) with a trip to Minnesota and the home finale against Michigan State. They probably need to win both and another game in the Big Ten tournament — or win the tournament itself — to get into the big one.

First, the Wolverines could use some consoling, because this was an absolutely brutal way to be knocked from a bracket, if that's what happens. John Beilein knew immediately, as he slumped in his chair while the Badgers celebrated, he had quick pick-me-up work to do. This is a young team that has improved dramatically and will have other chances, but few as teasing as this — the possible biggest victory in Beilein's four seasons here, gone in an instant.

"I feel really bad for them right now, but my role is to get them back," Beilein said. "They're all gonna think back to what they could've done, but we can't use this as a crutch."

They're going to recall missed free throws, that's for sure, five-for-11 overall. Clinging to a 52-50 lead with 30.8 seconds left, Darius Morris missed the first of a one-on-one, and the Badgers had their chance. The Wolverines had four fouls to give before the penalty and used them all, whacking the Badgers and draining the clock, until the last shot flew.

The guy was open because Michigan rightly double-teamed sensational guard Jordan Taylor, who flipped the ball to Gasser, who admitted he wasn't trying to bank it, but gladly would take it.

Season isn't over

There's really no strategic flaw here, not like the crusher Michigan experienced last year in the Big Ten Tournament, when Ohio State's Evan Turner dribbled to open space for a long buzzer-beating heave. That shot ended a season. This one didn't end anything, necessarily, and in Michigan's somber dressing room, that was the message, as well as it could be mustered.

Zack Novak, mired in an 0-for-14 slump, could barely utter responses. Is there a worse way to lose?

"Nope."

Can you guys recover from this?

"Yep."

And then, he summed it simply: "Give him credit, he banked in a three. Kid just made a big shot."

The Wolverines hit big shots too, a 3-pointer by Tim Hardaway Jr. that put them ahead, then a little hook by Jordan Morgan for a 52-50 lead with 2:41 left. That was it until the bitter end, and in the minds' replays, there will be a lot of clanking free throws.

Hardaway Jr., Morris and Evan Smotrycz all were 0-for-2. The Wolverines entered the game last in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage at .675, and ultimately, you are what the numbers say you are. The Badgers rank first and didn't miss one, although they only took three.

"They're supposed to be free, they're free throws, and they're just not dropping right now," Smotrycz said. "When (Gasser) made the shot, I didn't think it was real. Horrible."

The Wolverines were gassed by Gasser and undone by the narrowest of margins. Maybe this becomes fuel for a green, growing team, but the next two games are tough.

Close again, but not quite

You can say the difference was experience — Michigan starts two freshmen and a sophomore; Wisconsin starts three seniors — but I don't think it's that weighty. The difference was a carom here and there (Wisconsin had nine offensive rebounds to Michigan's two), a missed shot here and there, and one big banked shot right there, in the gut.

This was the best chance for the Wolverines to get that signature victory the NCAA selection committee demands. And if it looked painfully similar to the three-point loss to Syracuse, or the overtime loss to Kansas, or the four-point loss to Ohio State, that's because it was. The season motto will be "Just good enough to hang tough," unless the Wolverines find a way to change it.

"I'm really proud of our kids," Beilein said. "It gets down to a numbers game now, and close doesn't count. Hopefully, if we get a few more, the (committee) looks and says this team can play."

This team has played much better since starting 1-6 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines recovered nicely from that, which is good, because they'll need plenty more to rebound from this.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

Josh Gasserís shot banks off the backboard and into the basket, giving ... (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)