By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 16, 2012
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A faint redness showed in the eyes of Stu Douglass, an early trace of the tears that would soon be shed.
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For four years, those eyes — intense, perhaps, yet so unassuming, so innocent — seemed to promise to Douglass’s opponents that the man who wore them was not a basketball player to be feared, lulling them into a false sense of security before Douglass suddenly drained a 3-pointer or surprised with an acrobatic layup.
At this moment, those eyes, opened wide in numbness, were locked on the shot clock above his team’s basket. The red numbers read triple zeros, and they told Douglass that it had all come to an end.
On Friday night, in an upset — which so typifies the NCAA Tournament — the four-seed Michigan basketball team fell to 13-seed Ohio, 65-60, in Nashville. The Wolverines exit the Big Dance in the second round without winning a game, the first time that has happened in the four tournament appearances during Michigan coach John Beilein’s tenure.
“I was just trying to hold it in, make it to the locker room,” Douglass said. “I was just kind of in a state of disbelief. I’m still in it.”
Call it a Cinderella-style upset if you want, but it was clear from the beginning that Ohio didn’t see itself as an underdog by any stretch of the imagination.
Star guard D.J. Cooper and Ohio took the fight to the Wolverines first, eventually establishing control late in the first half. The Bobcats maintained that control for most of the rest of the game, with Michigan (13-5 Big Ten, 24-10 overall) and freshman point guard Trey Burke unable to get anything going on offense with consistency.
But Burke finally began taking the ball to the basket with authority late in the second half. With his team trailing 57-48 with 8:35 remaining in the game, Burke went on a personal 12-6 run, hitting a 3-pointer with 4:12 left to cut the score to 63-60. That remained the deficit for the next few heart-pounding minutes, with the two teams trading misses.
At the 2:25 mark, the Wolverines had four straight possessions where they missed a 3-pointer — Burke taking three of them — and grabbed the ensuing rebound. But on the final one, sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz lost control of the ball and turned it over to Ohio (28-7) with seven seconds left in the game, ending Michigan’s final chance.
Beilein said he couldn’t fault Burke for taking the 3-pointers because he’s hit them before, even though he was telling his team that it could go for two points. Meanwhile, there wasn’t any doubt in Burke’s mind about taking the long-range shots.
“They were switching (screens),” Burke said. “The big men that switched onto me kind of knew that I was going (to try) to go to the rim. All three shots that I shot looked good, they just went in and out. I was looking for the (3-pointer). … Every time, I created separation.
“Every shot (that) I shot looked good. It just came out.”
The Wolverines fought admirably, but they were caught playing catch-up because of Ohio’s ability to separate early on.
Cooper proved all night that he was more than a mid major-caliber player, serving notice in the game’s opening minutes by hitting a 3-pointer and following it with several acrobatic finishes at the rim. His leadership paced the Bobcat attack, allowing the team to get out to a game-high 13-point lead with 2:49 left in the first half.
And when Michigan mounted its comeback attempts, Ohio was there to answer. Whether it was Cooper himself — who finished with 21 points to lead all scorers — or whether he was dishing the ball to his teammates, the Bobcats refused to let the Wolverines get on a run until it was too late.
“I give a lot of credit to them,” Douglass said. “I give a lot of credit to Cooper. He just came out hot and set the tone for them. … knocking down his free throws, making plays, making the right passes.”
This Michigan team needed only to win two games it would be favored to make it back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994. It had already won a share of the program’s first Big Ten title since 1986. But like so many others before them, the Wolverines fell victim to March.
All Douglass could do was stare at the clock and trudge solemnly to the handshake line. His and fellow senior Zack Novak’s careers were over, as was the season that saw so much success yet won’t be able to rid this final heartbreak.
“It’s difficult because (Douglass and Novak) have been the heart and soul of this team for four years, through so many good times and certainly some low roads at times,” Beilein said. “You hate to see that happen, where they end like that, but frankly most teams do end with a loss. … We thought we could play for a while, but we knew we would have to play a really good game today.
“We didn’t play as well as we had played earlier in the year.”