SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Jordan Poole sat with a towel over his head, eyes red with tears. Duncan Robinson stood next to him, his voice barely audible. Isaiah Livers was down a ways, isolated from the rest of his team. Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson sat deep in their lockers.
All of the Michigan men’s basketball players answered questions about the 79-62 drubbing they’d just taken from Villanova in the NCAA Championship game. The Wolverines’ answers varied from regret to pride to love for their teammates.
But one thing was consistent. They all struggled to find an explanation for what just happened. Villanova made all the right plays all night long, and Michigan was rendered completely helpless.
“We lost to a team that was better than us tonight,” said Wolverines coach John Beilein. “And we were telling our kids, ‘We’ve just gotta be better than them one night.’ Because they are talented and have incredible experience. But we didn’t have it, and they did.”
Every time Michigan did show signs of making a run, it was answered immediately.
With just under seven minutes left and the Wolverines trailing by 14, Poole forced a turnover and sprinted into the frontcourt. The freshman guard slipped into the lane and rose up through traffic but missed the contested layup wildly off the backboard.
Moments later, the Wildcats’ Mikal Bridges came the other way and drilled a step-in, leaner of a three.
It was a play that made Beilein shake his head in disbelief when he talked about it after the game. And the play started a run that crushed Michigan’s hope once and for all.
“We talk big about chopping the tree down,” Livers said, referencing the metaphor the Wolverines use to conceptualize making a comeback. “You can’t chop a tree down when you chop it one time and then on the next time down they hit a big shot. Especially, I think there was a spurt when (Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo) hit two or three of them in a row, and one was a lay-up or something like that. And when a guy’s going like that, it’s just tough on a team.”
Livers was right. DiVincenzo hit everything he looked at for the Wildcats. He hit and-one layups and pull-up threes and two-handed dunks en route to a game-high 31-points.
“(It’s) frustrating as heck, because you play good defense on the guy,” Livers said. “… So you’ve gotta do your best to alter his shot and get in his way, but every time we tried to do that he just adjusted.”
Entering the game, it seemed like Michigan would need a perfect storm to win anyway. Villanova had to have an off night shooting, Jalen Brunson would have to have an off night all around, and the Wolverines would need to be clicking offensively.
In the beginning of the first half, that seemed to be taking shape. After making his first two shots of the game, Brunson missed his next four. The Wildcats missed their first four threes. Wagner had 11 points, and Michigan sprung out to a seven-point lead with just under 11 minutes left.
That’s when DiVincenzo, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, went off.
After leading for most of the first half, the Wolverines were caught in a whirlwind. They missed 14 of their 18 shots after taking that seven-point lead. That, combined with DiVincenzo’s explosion, erased Michigan’s promising start. The Wildcats led, 37-28, at the break.
The run to end the half was a preview for what was to come.
“They’re really talented top to bottom and experienced, and they’ve played on this stage before,” Robinson said. “Not that that’s any sort of excuse, because we feel like we could have played better, but tonight they were just a lot better than us clearly.”
The Wolverines exited the court at the Alamodome with confetti cascading around them, like they had in Los Angeles and New York. But it was for the opponent this time. The Big Ten Tournament Championship and the NCAA West Regional Championship didn’t mean anything in that moment.
On Monday night, Michigan ran into a buzzsaw that it had no hope of stopping. The Wolverines were outgunned and outmanned in the final game of the season, and now it was all over.
Villanova won its second NCAA Championship in three years, and Michigan was helpless in stopping it.