Niyo: A shot away from Final Four, Wolverines will reflect, regroup

This wasn’t how the night was supposed to end, and it certainly wasn’t…

Niyo: A shot away from Final Four, Wolverines will reflect, regroup 1
Niyo: A shot away from Final Four, Wolverines will reflect, regroup 2

This was why Franz Wagner came to Michigan, for opportunities like these. And really, it’s why he came back for more.

But with a half-second left on the clock, and everything hanging in the balance — the game against UCLA, a berth to the Final Four and the Wolverines’ season, as well as his college career, perhaps — it wasn’t going to be enough.

Wagner, Michigan’s sophomore wing, took the inbound pass from freshman center Hunter Dickinson, wheeled and fired up a desperation three-point attempt over UCLA’s Jules Bernard. It clanged off the back rim as the red light flashed.

“Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with .5 seconds,” coach Juwan Howard said later with a wry smile. “But that shot,  it was a nice little heave. It just didn’t go in.”

And in the moment, you could see the gravity of what that meant was just starting to hit Wagner. He turned and put both hands on his head, took a few steps toward midcourt, where the UCLA players had already come charging off the bench, and then Wagner tugged at his jersey, a shocked expression on his face.

This wasn’t how the night was supposed to end, and it certainly wasn’t where this NCAA Tournament run was supposed to stop for Wagner and the top-seeded Wolverines. Not with a 51-49 loss to 11th-seeded UCLA, a team that began it’s own March Madness with an overtime win over Michigan State in a play-in game just down the road in West Lafayette.

More: Cold shooting Wolverines upset by No. 11 UCLA 51-49, bounced from NCAA Tournament

The Wolverines were one shot away from their second Final Four berth in the last three NCAAs, and a third trip in the last eight. If just one of those late looks had fallen — Mike Smith’s three that rattled out with 6 seconds left, or any of those shots at the rim down the stretch, for that matter — Michigan would’ve been the only program in the country that could make either of those claims. And they’d have gotten their shot at knocking off an undefeated Gonzaga team Saturday night on this same court.

Instead, just past midnight, the party was over.

“It’s very disappointing for our guys … this year, coming down to one possession,” Howard said. “But that’s how it goes sometimes.”

And that’s harsh reality that’ll take some time to digest for Howard and the Wolverines, who’ll head home to Ann Arbor after three full weeks in Indianapolis, an extended stay which felt like a season unto itself. Or after a six-month season that felt like an eternity, at times, given everything that went into trying to play college basketball amid a pandemic.

All the health and safety protocols and the daily nasal swabs and the isolation from family and friends. A Christmas Day game in Nebraska. A New Year’s Eve game on the road at Maryland. And then that interminable two-week quarantine period in January.

Asked Tuesday night what he’ll take away from this season, senior guard Eli Brooks gave a nod to all that.

“Just the adversity that we had — I mean, everybody had —  in this season,” he said. “And just how close this group was and how locked in and mentally tough this team was all season. Because there’s a lot of opportunities that we could’ve taken the easy way out and made excuses and we didn’t do that. We stepped up. And we played hard every single game.

“There were a lot of sacrifices to be made throughout this season, just to get through the season. It was worth it because we had a good group of guys and we got to play a game we love. But it was difficult.”

It was worth it. Brooks wanted to make that part clear, too. He knows there’ll be Big Ten championship rings and a banner to remind them of what they accomplished before too long. But on this night, there were only some quiet words and hugs shared in a disappointed locker room, before they all headed back to the hotel to eat, pack and maybe close their eyes.

Or maybe not.

“It’s going to be tough to sleep tonight,” Howard said, “but I’ll get through it.”

Once they all do, though, they’ll realize how far they really got. This was Howard’s second season coaching his alma mater, and his first postseason. He accomplished plenty, but he also made some mistakes along the way.

“We will learn from this and we will grow from it, and definitely we all will get better, starting with me first,” he said. 

But first things first. This team of his, it exceeded all expectations, after being picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten by the media and starting the season unranked in the coaches’ poll back in October. They won a Big Ten title, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs and then advanced to the Elite Eight despite losing their dynamic senior leader, Isaiah Livers, to a stress fracture in his foot three weeks ago.

“I’m so proud of this group and how they competed all season long, during some very difficult times,” Howard said. “It’s been a very challenging year, but at the end of the day, we all need to walk out of this building with our head up with nothing but humility, gratitude and dignity.”

And excitement about what comes next, whether it’s for players like Livers and Wagner, who likely will decide the time is right to start their pro careers. Others will have some decisions to make, including the seniors, who all are eligible to play another year thanks to an NCAA ruling earlier this winter. Some could stay, others could transfer.

But for those who are returning — a group that presumably includes Dickinson, though we’ll have to wait and see — they’ll be joined by the nation’s top incoming recruiting class. This season might be finished, but this program under Howard is just getting started, it seems.

“You can learn a lot from this year, and I’m sure there’s a lot of things we’re going to take away and grow from,” Howard said. “But our goal is to be better next year.”

And the best news about that, I suppose, is that the clock will reset before they take that shot.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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