Niyo: Foibles resurface to sink UM's Tournament run
New York — They needed a timeout.
But they needed more than that, obviously.
And as the most important possession of the season unraveled for Michigan on Friday night, this was painfully clear: These Wolverines were out of time.
A season that fell apart in a mess of injuries and inexperience and inconsistent efforts ultimately ended in much the same way here at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where John Beilein watched his 11th-seeded team cough up a 12-point halftime lead against No. 6 seed Notre Dame and then stumble down the stretch in a first-round NCAA tournament loss.
And after a week that offered some unexpected hope — last-minute shots producing late-season possibilities and an unlikely NCAA berth — the Wolverines were unable to turn back the clock Friday night.
Zak Irvin’s awkward, hurried three-point attempt with 13 seconds left and Notre Dame clinging to a 66-63 lead drew iron instead of net, meaning there would be no tomorrow for this team.
The junior later insisted it was more than a long shot.
“I got a good look at it, it felt good,” he said, after a 4-for-16 shooting night. “It just came up short.”
Like so many other possessions in the second half, it did, as the Irish turned up the defensive intensity and Beilein’s team turned into the same group that had looked lost for much of the last couple months.
Jarred and pickled
“They took away some of our plays, took us out of our comfort zone,” said Beilein, who opted not to call a timeout with his team scrambling in the final minute. “And we didn’t react well.”
And when they don’t react well, as Beilein noted early Saturday morning outside the Michigan locker room, his team doesn’t play defense very well, either.
Notre Dame, while hardly the Elite Eight squad it was a year, still boasts one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. And aside from an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers Friday, Mike Brey’s team showed it again in this game, shooting 58.1 percent from the field.
V.J. Beachem, a player the Wolverines once recruited, made all seven of his field-goal attempts, none bigger than the late-clock 3 from deep he hit to put the Irish up 62-59 with 3:43 left.
“It was a big play in the game,” Beilein said, “and we couldn’t answer some of those plays.”
Fittingly, perhaps, as his was a team full of question marks all year.
Michigan has lost a key player to season-ending injury before. Five times in the last three years, in fact. But this season, it was both of Michigan’s senior co-captains — first the Wolverines lost guard Spike Albrecht and then they lost NBA first-round hopeful Caris LeVert.
And the uncertainty surrounding the latter injury overshadowed much of the Big Ten season for the Wolverines, with LeVert still holding out hope for a return until the end of February. Beilein held out some hope, too — “It was more for Caris that I was concerned — I just wanted him to play again,” he said — but eventually they threw in the towel.
“And once we made that decision that’s best for him, that’s best for us, I just think everybody settled into a rotation and role-playing,” Beilein said. “So I feel good about where we are and how the team has responded. Even though we had all those tough games at the end of the year — some wins, too many losses — I think we got better through all of it.”
They'll have to get much better from here, individually and collectively. To a man, they all admitted that after this loss.
But better wasn’t good enough Friday night, with the Wolverines playing their fifth game in nine days and facing a Notre Dame team that generally doesn’t beat itself.
Big Apple, big ideas
Michigan came out playing loose, and quickly made itself at home in New York, where Beilein’s teams had won six of their last seven games.
The guards, led by junior Derrick Walton Jr., were hitting their shots, for a welcome change, and for the second time in as many games in this NCAA tournament, freshman center Moritz Wagner provided a spark inside, where this Michigan team struggled mightily all season.
Wagner used some nifty footwork to score on his first possession Friday, and then closed the first half with a flourish — a dunk, a steal and a buzzer-beating layup in the final 90 seconds.
After that last layup circled the rim twice and then fell, Wagner strutted to center court looked to his teammates streaming onto the court from the bench and thumped his chest. The halftime margin was 12 points, and the hearty Michigan contingent in a crowd of 17,502 was loudly contemplating another first-round upset.
Friday was full of those, beginning with that stunner in St. Louis, where No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State danced all over Michigan State’s national title hopes. The nightcap was nearly as improbable, with Northern Iowa’s half-court winner to beat Texas.
In all, the double-digit seeds won 10 of 24 games in the first round — a tournament record — proving that a year of parity in college basketball may end with plenty more of it.
It just won’t end with Michigan playing a part in it — the 11th seed couldn't make it 11 — a reality that hit hard in the locker room.
Wagner, the 18-year-old who arrived from Germany only eight months ago, held it together as he spoke with reporters in front of his locker.
“Right now I don’t know what to say,” he said, trying to shrug away the pain. “No choice. Just got to get through it.”
But moments later, he sat in a chair with his jersey pulled over his head, crying as teammate Duncan Robinson patted him on the back in consolation.
Their time was up, and even for the youngest in the room, it hurt like nothing else.