Wojo: Top-seeded Michigan will be haunted by frantic final seconds

This was a brutal way for a terrific season to end, with wide-open…

Wojo: Top-seeded Michigan will be haunted by frantic final seconds 1
Wojo: Top-seeded Michigan will be haunted by frantic final seconds 2

They had a shot, then another shot, then another shot. The Wolverines had so many shots, they’ll see them in their sleep for a long, long time.

This was a brutal way for a terrific season to end, with wide-open shots clanking madly or missing completely. Michigan got as close as a team possibly can to the Final Four and was felled by an opponent just as determined defensively. UCLA fully earned a sweaty 51-49 victory Tuesday night in the Elite Eight, but the Wolverines will be haunted by the frantic final seconds.

Poised and clutch all season, they missed their last eight shots, including four in the final 12 seconds. Franz Wagner misfired on a pair of 3-pointers, including a heave at the buzzer that was just off target, and it summed up Michigan’s night. Wagner was 1-for-10 as the Wolverines shot 39% and wasted a fantastic opportunity.

Afterward, Juwan Howard tried to process what went awry, as his top-seeded team fell to the underdog Bruins. Of course UCLA wasn’t your standard 11 seed, with a star in Johnny Juzang (28 points) and a scrappy, grinding mentality that matched up well with Michigan. But that certainly doesn’t make it any easier for Howard and his players, who fell far short of their best effort.

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

The Wolverines made an emphatic mark in Howard’s second season, and they’re set up well for the future. But it seemed their immediate future would be a Final Four matchup with unbeaten Gonzaga (30-0), which would’ve been daunting. We wondered when the loss of Isaiah Livers would truly hit them, and while they didn’t belabor it, this was where it was expected to hurt. Ultimately, they came up short in the firepower department.

No-excuses mantra

True to his no-excuses mantra, Howard offered none. He said the Wolverines got the shots they wanted at the end and they were mostly open. Trailing 50-49, Wagner airballed a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left, and Eli Brooks grabbed the rebound and flipped it up short of the basket.

After Juzang made one of two free throws, Mike Smith raced up the court and had a decent look at a potential 3-point winner. The rebound went out of bounds and Michigan had one more chance with .5 seconds left, but Wagner’s deep jumper hit the rim, and he put his head in his hands and slumped over.

The Wolverines looked disoriented all night, struggling to run their offense. But they got their share of easy shots, and 7-footer Hunter Dickinson missed several around the basket. The larger issue was the guard play, and Smith (1-for-7) was replaced at the point for a while by Brooks.

“They played extremely hard, they earned that win,” Brooks said. “We’re not gonna take anything away from them. They made everything challenging.”

More: ‘We came up short’: Cold-shooting Michigan falls to UCLA in Elite Eight

Howard searched for answers but they’re harder to find when the other team, coached by defense-minded Mick Cronin, does what you do very well. It also didn’t help that Michigan made only six of 11 free throws and turned the ball over nine times in the first half. Still, the Wolverines tied it 46-46 on a Chaundee Brown 3-pointer with 5:23 left, then didn’t make another basket.

Michigan got stuck playing at UCLA’s slower pace, and as the minutes ticked down, the tension ramped up. Wagner missed all four of his 3-pointers and finished with four points, and you wonder what this does for his NBA ambitions, at least in the near future.

He was not alone, as every shot down the stretch for both teams seemed to be labored and tentative.

‘You lose together’

“It’s hard to start thinking about would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, but it’s not about that,” Howard said. “It’s about how can we improve. Franz is one of the big reasons why we’re here in this position. I always have trust in all my players, it’s never one guy didn’t shoot the ball well. As a team, you win together and you lose together.”

In the NCAA Tournament, it’s wise to be suspicious of apparent breaks. Drawing an 11 seed in the Elite Eight, that’s a good break, right? Oops. UCLA barely made the Tournament and drew Michigan State in a First Four matchup. That’s a bad break, right?

As it turns out, the Bruins’ run was launched by their comeback against the Spartans, rallying from 14 down to win in overtime. So yes, UCLA single-handedly wiped out the state of Michigan.

Going forward, the Wolverines need Dickinson to round out his game to become truly dominant. They also need more consistent 3-point shooting. They also need some perspective, and winning the Big Ten and finishing 23-5 in a COVID-affected season is a tremendous accomplishment, and Howard firmly established his program.

But you get this close, it feels like a blown opportunity, a disappointment but not a disaster.

“I just want to say it was a great run, and a very disappointing way to end,” Howard said. “In the game of basketball, one or two possessions can either help you or hurt you. For us, we came up short. But I’m very proud of this group. We’ll learn from this and grow from it and definitely all get better, starting with me first.”

The upside – and sometimes the downside – is that more will be expected next season. When you rise from the middle of the pack, unranked early, and climb to a No. 1 seed, you’ve whetted a whole lot of appetites. This shot, like so many in the game, fell short. It doesn’t ruin the impact of the run, but reminds you how painful it is when you don’t deliver your best shot.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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