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Smotrycz's turnover the lasting image, but not the cause, of Michigan's loss

Alden Reiss/Daily
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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 16, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A three-point game. Under 10 seconds left. Sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz with the ball. A simple crossover — a transfer of the ball from his right hand to his left — attempting to free up space for himself.

Maybe he was getting ready to drive, or maybe he was about to launch a 3-pointer. Now, we’ll never know.

“I just lost the handle,” Smotrycz said, before incoherently mumbling a few other words.

It was a move he’s probably used a million times in his career, so routine — until it wasn’t. Somehow, the ball squirted away. And with seven seconds left, Ohio forward Walter Offutt scooped the ball — and the game — away from Smotrycz and Michigan.

Offutt hit two free throws, and as the 13-seed Bobcats upset the Wolverines, Smotrycz’s blunder will be the lasting image of a season that wasn’t supposed to end Friday. It’s a natural reaction, but Smotrycz’s single miscue didn’t lose the game.

While Smotrycz came away looking like the scapegoat, had Michigan won, he would’ve been the hero.

Freshman point guard Trey Burke was silent for much of the game, despite finishing with 16 points after getting hot in the last 10 minutes of the second half. Senior guards Zack Novak and Stu Douglass combined for seven points on 3-for-13 shooting. And no bench player besides Smotrycz scored or had any noteworthy contributions.

But Smotrycz kept the Wolverines in the game. He was nearly perfect from the field, shooting 6-for-7, including two 3-point makes. He made his presence felt on the glass, collecting seven rebounds — the last time he had more than five was on New Year’s Day.

Yet still, it’ll be hard to forget the ball bouncing freely from Smotrycz’s fingertips in the waning seconds.

“(People) shouldn’t (blame him), because nobody shot really great and Evan had a great game,” Douglass said. “He kept up in it with a bunch of those threes (and) shots.”

Even before Smotrycz’s miscue, the Wolverines blew several chances at closing, or even erasing, the deficit. Burke missed two game-tying threes in the final minute of play. And Michigan missed multiple layups and close-range jumpers throughout the game that came back to haunt the Wolverines in a three-point loss.

“It was everybody,” said sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “I don’t even know what to say. … We’ve been missing shots, missing layups all year long.”

For Smotrycz, this moment has the potential to be a make-or-break moment for his young career.

Smotrycz’s non-conference season was superb. He nearly averaged a double-double in December, when he was still a starter and a go-to option on offense. But he went cold throughout Big Ten play, and save for the occasional game, he was a non-factor. Coming off the bench, he averaged just 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game against conference foes — both disappointing numbers given the expectations he had entering the season, when he showed up from an offseason that saw him put on close to 35 pounds.

How this play defines his career is yet to be seen. It could be a mental barrier that could haunt him forever. Or, it could push him through the next offseason, causing him to be better for it in the long haul.

Smotrycz had little to say in the locker room after the 65-60 loss, still carrying a defeated look on his face as he mumbled short answers to questions.

But Hardaway Jr., Smotrycz’s roommate and one of his closest friends, knows that the Reading, Mass. native will respond positively from this.

“Evan’s a great player, and he’s going to learn from it,” Hardaway Jr. said. “I’m not really concerned about him. He’s been through it all. He’s been taking the heat all season about doing too much, or whatever. That’s Evan.”