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Late-game magic escapes when it matters most

Alden Reiss/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 16, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Michigan had won this game many times before.

A week ago, Michigan overcame a nine-point deficit with under five minutes to play to beat Minnesota in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

Two weeks before that, the Wolverines found themselves down four points to Northwestern in the final minutes before pulling out an overtime victory. Earlier in the season, they had charged back from an eight-point deficit in the second half to down the Wildcats in overtime in Ann Arbor.

And in marquee wins over rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, Michigan found a way to grit out nail-biting finishes. Of the Wolverines’ nine losses, just three had not been decided by double digits — it was the close ones that they were often able to salvage.

So, when Michigan found itself down nine points with less than nine minutes to play against Ohio at Bridgestone Arena on Friday night, the Wolverines were in their element.

“We’ve been in this situation a million times this year,” said freshman point guard Trey Burke.

And so Burke played like he had a million times before. After having only scored four points at that point in the game, Burke dominated the next five minutes.

He scored Michigan’s next 12 points by getting to the rim, getting to the free-throw line and burying contested 3-pointers. And all of a sudden, the score went from 57-48 to 63-60 with four minutes left.

It was just like so many other times this season.

“We always have to believe, and we were believing the whole entire game,” said sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “Down three with two or three minutes left to go in the game, we were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been here before.’ ”

The Wolverines continued to stop the Bobcats on defense, and all they needed was to sink a shot or two to complete their comeback.

“Everyone was confident,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “We had the momentum, we had cut the lead down, we’d been in this situation before. We just got to play our game. We’re a second-half team, that’s it. We’ve done it all year.”

But there was a problem.

“We just weren’t hitting shots,” Burke said.

Shot after shot evaded nylon. Sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz, who hadn’t missed all game, came up short on a layup as he slashed through the defense from the left wing. Burke missed a 3-pointer, and so did Novak.

“We saw a little bit of light,” said senior guard Stu Douglass. “We wanted the lead so bad, we wanted to tie it so bad. We fought so hard and we didn’t want the season to end. Sometimes, you can kind of overdo it and overthink it a little bit.”

The Wolverines had surrendered possession with under a minute left and needed a crucial stop. Burke got that stop by forcing Bobcat guard Nick Kellogg into a 10-second violation. There would be time to try to tie it or take it to the basket and foul to extend the game.

“I thought, 'we’ll hit a shot finally,' ” Douglass said. “Percentages. The law of percentages, we’ll hit a shot. I had confidence.”

That confidence meant confidence in Burke, who had come through all season. There was no reason to believe that it was going to be different this time.

Burke missed his 3-point try, but Michigan was able to corral the offensive rebound and Michigan coach John Beilein called a timeout with 40 seconds left.

Beilein’s freshman was going to get another shot at it.

As Burke dribbled the ball with the clock winding down in the Wolverines’ last possession, he wore a wide smile on his face. He knew what he had done with the game on the line so many other times before.

“It was confidence,” Burke said.

But then his shot went in-and-out. The Wolverines regained possession and had renewed life until Smotrycz flubbed a crossover while his team tried to reset, and Ohio recovered the ball with seven seconds remaining.

At that moment, the confidence that Michigan had felt the whole game — the whole season — vanished. Things had gone according to the script the whole time, and as long as there was hope, the Wolverines knew they had it in the bag.

And then the script flipped.

“I looked up and I thought we had more time,” Douglass said. “I looked over and it was 6.7 (seconds left) and I just couldn’t believe it.”

Michigan had to foul and hope that Ohio guard Walter Offutt would miss both of his free throws so that the Wolverines could charge down the floor and get a final chance.

“There was still a possibility that Offutt was going to miss and so I think we called a timeout and drew up a play and talked strategy,” Douglass said. “But it was kind of hard to pay attention. You knew he was going to hit one. It was hard to face reality at that point.”

Offutt effortlessly sank both of his tries, and reality struck.