Luck runs out: Michigan's season ends in loss to Notre Dame
New York — Mortiz Wagner, an 18-year-old freshman from Germany who's not even close to being used to the attention he's received in the past two weeks, stood before the cameras early Saturday morning and answered every question with the composure of a seasoned veteran.
Then, as Derrick Walton Jr. in the locker to his right was asked a question about a pivotal late charge called on Wagner, the kid lost it, pulling his jersey over his head to hide the tears, but not the sniffles.
Duncan Robinson, in the locker to the left, put his hand on Wagner's back, and kept it there in a touching sign of solidarity, not 30 minutes after Michigan's season came to an end in crushing fashion against Notre Dame, 70-63, in a first-round NCAA Tournament game Friday night at a sold-out and screaming Barclays Center.
"The call could've gone either way," Walton said. "It was more than just one play that the game changed, so that play we can say it was monumental.
"But it was a lot more things that happened within that game that we just didn't get done."
Wagner's charge, with 5:39 left in a tie game, wiped away a possible one-and-one situation, and had the Michigan bench fuming. One referee had to warn the bench to cool it, most notably Spike Albrecht.
Once order was restored, Wagner — having played such inspired basketball, out of nowhere, the past nine days — was out of the game, with his fourth foul.
Notre Dame went on to finish on a 14-7 run, highlighted by V.J. Beachem, who made all seven shots he took — including two huge ones late, a 3-pointer with 3:43 left to put the Irish up three, and 34 seconds later, made a super-tough contested jumper to make it a five-point game.
Mark Donnal answered with a layup, but got his next attempt on the next possession partially blocked by Bonzie Colson, who had a layup on the other end to push the lead back to five.
Zak Irvin responded with a layup, and on the other end, Michigan got a rare second-half stop, putting the ball in the Wolverines' hands with a chance to get the game to overtime.
No surprise, the ball was in the hands of Irvin, who hit huge shots to beat Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament and Tulsa in the "First Four" NCAA Tournament game. And he got his look at 3, again.
But the magic was gone. This one was short. And, after some Notre Dame free throws, the season was over.
"It felt good coming off my hands," Irvin said. "Obviously, it didn't go in. A tough loss for us."
Given the roll Michigan's been on, with all the late dramatic victories just to get to this point, no surprise Irvin's teammates all expected him to do it again, even though he was 4-for-15 to that point.
Not this time, not this night.
"I thought it was in," Robinson said. "We have a ton of confidence in him. He's our leader and captain. I'd want him to that shot every single time.
"Unfortunately, this one didn't go in. I'm sure the next one will."
The next one, of course, will have to wait for Michigan, which finishes the season 23-13.
It looked much of the night like this wild ride would continue on into Sunday, but it'll be sixth-seeded Notre Dame (22-11) meeting 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin around 3 p.m. at Barclays Center.
Michigan absolutely stunned Notre Dame in the opening half, running out to a 41-29 lead, thanks to Walton, who had 10 points, four assists and four steals. He finished with a career-high six steals.
But the Irish switched up their defense, going man-to-man, and it had the Wolverines rattled. Notre Dame scored the first eight points of the half, and from the 15-minute mark to 8:59 kept Michigan scoreless to take a three-point lead, its first of the night.
"It threw us into a tizzy," coach John Beilein said. "And all of a sudden, we couldn't make a shot."
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman finally stopped the bleeding, making a 3 from just in front of the bench to tie it back up — getting a celebratory pat on the head from D.J. Wilson. And a little over a minute later, Irvin hit an NBA-deep 3 to put Michigan back in front.
But Notre Dame made the shots later, and its defense kept Michigan from doing the same.
The Irish shot 58.1 percent for the game, and was 6-for-10 on 3-pointers in the second half. Michigan shot 28.1 percent in the second half, after 51.6 in the first.
Abdur-Rahkman, finishing his season so strong, had 15 points to lead Michigan, while Walton scored 10, though none after halftime. He was 0-for-6 in the second half. Irvin, Donnal and Robinson all scored nine.
For Notre Dame, Beachem finished with 18 points, Colson had 12 despite his minutes limited by a third foul in the first half, and Demetrius Jackson scored 11. Irish big man Zach Auguste had 10 points and 12 rebounds, making up for four of Notre Dame's whopping 16 turnovers — 10 of which came in that first half.
"They came out firing," Donnal said. "I think they learned from their turnovers in the first half, and something in the locker room at halftime kind of sparked them to kind of come out and start the second half."
Michigan's goal always is 10 or more 3-pointers and nine or fewer or turnovers. The Wolverines accomplished both, at 10 and seven, respectively.
That's why the locker room afterward was so glum and teary-eyed.
This was a game Michigan could've won, against a Notre Dame team that was on the ropes. It's not like the Wolverines got run out of the house. They, in fact, had every opportunity to do the running.
But a questionable charge call, some shots that missed that haven't been missing lately, and some bad defense — OK, that's nothing new — and, just like that, the season was over. Michigan, actually, probably had a better season than it should've, given all the adversity it dealt with from Day 1.
Not that there was much solace to take in that, not 30 minutes after it all came to an end.
"It's still hard to believe it's over," Walton said. "It seemed like we had a firm grip on the game."