Wojo: Sudden defeat hard to swallow for Wolverines

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Kansas City, Mo. — If it was going to end, this was how it would end, against an opponent just as good, just as lethal, in a thriller that left no room to breathe. When Derrick Walton Jr. rose and fired the final shot, the horn sounded, the crowd shrieked, and Michigan finally hit the clank of disappointment.

You won’t find a basketball game any tighter than this, or a loss any tougher for the Wolverines, who had it in their grasp and let it slip away. Oregon rallied in the final minute to beat Michigan 69-68 Thursday night and deny the Wolverines a spot in the Elite Eight.

Fittingly, the ball was in their leader’s hands at the end, after Oregon missed a free throw with 15 seconds left. So it actually was surprising when Walton’s shot — an open 20-footer — hit the front of the rim, and he clasped his hands to his face as the Ducks celebrated.

“I thought it was the best shot I got all night, I had great lift on it, I shot it like I shot every other shot,” Walton said softly in Michigan’s locker room. “I just thought it would be a great moment and the shot would go in. I’ve made that shot a thousand times.”

It wasn’t a long shot, and during their stirring run, the Wolverines weren’t a long shot anymore. That’s what pained them the most, knowing this game could have been theirs. In the heat of the battle, against a sticky Oregon defense, the Wolverines made mistakes and rushed shots. And yet they were right there, grabbing a 68-65 lead on another tough Walton jumper with 2:02 left.

It was a taut, chaotic game — neither team led by more than six and the lead changed hands an incredible 16 times. Down the stretch, Walton (20 points) and fellow senior Zak Irvin (19 points) were equal parts clutch and desperate. But the Wolverines couldn’t quite hold off the Ducks and couldn’t corral a key rebound or two.

First, Oregon’s Jordan Bell slipped past D.J. Wilson to snatch a missed free throw and scored to cut Michigan’s lead to 68-67. Next came the final minute of the riveting run. Oregon’s scorching Tyler Dorsey spun to the basket and scored to put the Ducks ahead 69-68 with 1:05 left. Wilson then missed a 3-pointer and Walton was just short on the final shot of his Michigan career.

Nothing magic about it

When it was over, the Wolverines could scarcely believe it, even though Oregon proved to be as dynamic as advertised. It was because the next step was so tantalizingly close, and Michigan (26-12) had won so many games precisely like this. It’s amazing how such an arduous run — from teetering at midseason, to 12 wins in 14 games, to an emergency exit from a ditched plane, to seven straight victories and the Big Ten tournament title — can end so abruptly, in the final second.

“There have been seasons where I felt we reached as far as we can go,” John Beilein said. “I didn’t feel that today. I felt, we’re gonna win this game, continue to advance, because we’re a really good team. It wasn’t gonna be magical, it was gonna be because we’re good enough to win this game, and we really proved it. There were just some possessions offensively and defensively we’d like to have back.”

Whether it was nerves, or Oregon’s shifting defenses, or simply the collision of two talented, scrappy teams, it got sloppy at times. Michigan committed 10 total turnovers in its Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville and had seven in the first half (but finished with only eight).

In one gasp, the Ducks would surge ahead, showing they were just as efficient on 3-pointers (eight-for-17). In the next gasp, the Wolverines would fire back. With less than five minutes left, Wilson and Walton hit wide-open 3-pointers and Michigan was ahead, 61-60.

It wasn’t artistic but it was great competition. Afterward, the Wolverines were more numb than visibly distraught, although a few were beating themselves up. Moe Wagner, sensational in the victory over Louisville, hit only three of 10 shots and sat much of the second half. Wilson missed an easy layup at a key juncture and didn’t box out Bell on the late free throw. If he snares the rebound, Michigan has the ball and a three-point lead with 1:47 left.

“Missing that bunny layup and then giving up a free throw box-out, those are four points that I more than anybody wish I had back,” Wilson said, talking in a low, labored tone. “Seeing (the seniors) like this, it crushes me.”

Maybe it will inspire them moving forward, not that anyone was in the mood to discuss the future. Michigan could be very good again next season, as long as Wilson and Wagner don’t eye the pros. Both said they haven’t even thought about it, and frankly, neither looks physically strong enough for the jump.

On a mission

This season ultimately was about more than basketball, and the Wolverines have spoken about how close they became after the plane accident. But when it came to the games, they didn’t feel they were on some karma-heavy run. They were enlightened and emboldened by all they had encountered, but knew it guaranteed them nothing.

“You saw everyone play as hard as they could, especially Derrick and myself, two seniors that didn’t want their seasons to end,” Irvin said. “It’s just unfortunate the ball didn’t bounce our way. We felt we were really playing our best basketball and we didn’t want it to end anytime soon.”

Heartbreak: Michigan run ends on missed shot at buzzer

They’d been rolling for more than a month, and after winning the Big Ten tournament, they adopted the mantra “Why Not Us?” Before Thursday night’s game, Walton encapsulated their confidence.

“I just felt we always had the pieces, and the moment we began to put it together, we’d put the nation on notice,” Walton said. “We always had the mission to come to the Tournament and win it.”

Missions of this magnitude aren’t supposed to be smooth, and the Ducks presented even more problems than Louisville. They could match the Wolverines’ shooting and skill, and as a 3 seed with a 31-5 record, they surely couldn’t be pleased they were considered a slight underdog.

The first half looked like a clash of like-minded teams, neither establishing control. It was hardly new for the Wolverines, who trailed by at least seven against Oklahoma State and Louisville. The leading scorers for Michigan may change game to game but the formula never did. Everything goes through Walton, and he pretty much kept them afloat. On one highlight-reel play in the first half, he came out of a loose-ball scrum and fired a no-look, behind-the-back pass to Irvin for a layup and a foul.

It was like that all night, back and forth, what a Sweet 16 game is supposed to look like, desperate and taut, with enormous stakes.

“I haven’t been this sad or disappointed in a long time,” Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “It (stinks) to have this feeling.”

It turned out to be a great story without a great ending, but that happens more often than not. The Wolverines told the story as well as they could, as long as they could, and when the ache subsides, they certainly won’t mind retelling it.


Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski