Wojo: Pain and tears for Michigan after loss to ruthless Wildcats

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

San Antonio – There was no doubt after this one, no debate on who deserved to be champion. But that didn’t mean there were no tears or no pain for the Wolverines, who displayed all the raw, human emotions in the aftermath.

Fitting, really, because after making it farther than anyone expected with unblinking defense, they ran smack into a machine that made them look human. This can happen at the highest level, and there’s no higher level in college basketball now than Villanova. The Wildcats weathered the Wolverines’ early surge and then took them apart, piece by piece, shot by shot.

Villanova was much too much, led by reserve Donte DiVincenzo, and rolled to a 79-62 victory Monday night for the national championship in the Alamadome. There’s no shame in going as far as you can and getting beat by the best, although the Wolverines will lament their anemic 3-point shooting (3-for-23) and another batch of missed free throws. They hadn’t faced anyone like this, beating no team seeded higher than No. 6, and got breaks along the way.

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No breaks here, just broken down, and there was a reason the Wildcats were such heavy favorites to win their second title in three years. When their star, Jalen Brunson, struggled against Michigan’s defense, they brought a shooter off the bench, and DiVincenzo was ruthless, scoring 18 in the first half and finishing with 31.

It was astonishing, and for the Wolverines, astonishingly reminiscent. In their last championship appearance in 2013, they led Louisville until reserve Luke Hancock got hot. He scored 22 points and the Cardinals prevailed 82-76, and five years later, the Wolverines were undone the same way.

‘Better than us’

John Beilein could only marvel at the Wildcats’ offensive precision, rather than regret what got away.

“If you lose a last-second one, all right, maybe the game was more entertaining for everyone, but as a coach, you’re gonna beat yourself up forever,” Beilein said. “We lost to a team that was better than us. They’d win a lot of Final Fours with the way they’re coached, the way they conduct themselves. We’re not gonna hang our heads, we’re gonna move on, learn from it, and really cherish all the memories from the season.”

They will, and they should. But in the locker room, it was impossible for players not to hang their heads. It didn’t matter that the outcome was decided long before the final buzzer, or that many experts figured this would be a mismatch. It wasn’t hard to see why – the Wildcats had the National Player of the Year in Brunson and several holdovers from the team that won it all two years ago.

But the Wolverines got here with a feisty chip, and weren’t letting it go easily. Freshman Jordan Poole tried to answer questions between sobs. Point guard Zavier Simpson sat deep in his locker with a towel over his lowered head and asked the cameras to stop snapping away. When he talked, he was barely audible.

Seniors Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played their final games, and pending possible decisions about turning pro, Moe Wagner and Charles Matthews might have played their final games. There will be time to cherish Michigan’s run, but here, there was utter sorrow.

“It’s not as heart-breaking or gut-wrenching when with four minutes left, you can read the writing on the wall, but it doesn’t hurt any less,” Robinson said. “They’re a really good team, they were clearly a lot better than us tonight. But the ultimate goal is right there and you just sort of fall flat on your face, quite honestly. It hurts because we didn’t play our best, and that’s not something you can get back.”

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Michigan did something it hadn’t done in nearly two months while winning 14 straight games – it buckled under frustration. As Villanova expanded its lead, Wagner and Omari Spellman tangled after the whistle and drew technical fouls. It was a culmination of aggravation for the Wolverines, who were hampered by early foul trouble and couldn’t sustain their trademark sticky defense.

From the smooth coach, Jay Wright, to the smooth offense, Villanova was all dressed up to have a ball. On the other side, Beilein and Michigan’s sleeves were all rolled up, hoping to muddy the No. 1 team’s plans. Apparently, no one’s capable of doing that, as the Wildcats won all six NCAA Tournament games by at least 12 points.

Suddenly gone

Villanova was so deadly, it turned a fun, tight game into a rout before Michigan could figure out how to react. The Wolverines led 21-14 after a Wagner basket midway through the first half, and the drama seemed to be growing.

And then it was gone, and Michigan’s improbable run – from unranked to undaunted – ended shy of the biggest prize. The Wolverines finished 33-8 and took their fans on a ride, but there’s always disappointment when it shrieks to a humbling halt.

“They went on a run and we didn’t respond,” Matthews said. “To be honest, the game was clear as day – it wasn’t like we lost on a last-second shot where somebody made an error.”

And then Matthews said something that perfectly encapsulated the delight and despair of the tournament: “The high and the low is the same thing. The high is getting here. The low is being here. We lost.”

Poole provided the snapshots for both. There was his celebratory smile after his miraculous 3-pointer beat Houston to reach the Sweet 16, and then his tear-streaked countenance Monday night. Only in the NCAA Tournament are the extremes so extreme.

“Being able to hit that shot was cool, but that shot don’t mean nothing to me now,” Poole said. “Being around these guys, wanting to do it for the seniors, and not being able to pull it off … That’s March Madness for you, an emotional rollercoaster, you go super high, and if you can’t win it all, you’re at your lowest point.”

Poole and other young players talked about heightened determination and expectations for next season, and with an excellent recruiting class, the Wolverines will have more talent to grow. Once again, they’ll bank on their defense, and hope it doesn’t run into someone like DiVincenzo any time soon. Even DiVincenzo, who averaged 13 points per game, couldn’t really explain his performance -- 10-for-15 from the field, 5-for-7 on 3-pointers.

“Honestly, I did not think I was going to have this kind of night,” he said. “These guys did a great job of finding me, and I just found myself in a rhythm.”

The Wolverines knew the enormity of the task, facing one of the best 3-point-shooting teams in NCAA history. They also figured they had an antidote: One of the toughest defenses in the country.

At the start, they were harassing Villanova’s pretty offense into confusion, and Simpson did help hold Brunson to nine points, a season low. In fact, only DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges (19 points) scored in double figures for Villanova. And yet it was basically over early in the second half, despite the spirited effort of Abdur-Rahkman, who finished with 23 points.

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After DiVincenzo came in firing, the Wildcats opened up a 37-28 halftime lead, and the Wolverines never mounted a serious threat. That made it tougher to watch, but for Beilein, ultimately easier to accept as time goes on.

“I’m just very proud to have a year like this, they just kept growing and growing, and that’s all a coach can ask for,” Beilein said. “This is a great part of life – you have these highlights and then all of a sudden in the blink of an eye, your season’s over and there’s sadness. But in the long run, there’s a lot of joy in what we just went through.”

The Wolverines battled through adversity several times this season but hadn’t faced a lot in a while, and not against an opponent like this. This was an entirely different beast, and as the night wore on, it showed. Michigan was grinded down by an absolute machine, suffering real pain, but pain that shouldn’t last.