Against Spartans, Michigan undone by another scoring drought
CHICAGO — In the moments after Greg Gumble announced Michigan as the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region, the Wolverines began to trickle out of their watch party and back into their locker room at the United Center, where they had just lost the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game to Michigan State, 65-60.
Reporters were soon allowed to follow suit, flooding noise and energy into a locker room still shrouded in stunned silence. The few Wolverines present sat on folding chairs, staring blankly into their phones. None expressed interest in speaking with the media.
Eventually, though, a reporter made his way up to Ignas Brazdeikis and asked if he could talk. The freshman forward, only identifiable by the name on the back of his jersey peaking through the white warmup shirt he wore over it, let out an audible sigh. He sat, elbows on knees, facing away from the incoming commotion in a last-gasp attempt to shield himself from the inevitable questions.
An hour earlier and a world away, with 15 seconds left in the second half, he gathered the ball at the top of the arc and charged into the lane. As much as he attracts the cameras off the court, this is Ignas Brazdeikis’ element. So when he pulled up and released, a sold-out United Center rose to its feet in anticipation. But just as each of Michigan’s shots had over the previous two minutes, it clanged out.
Back at his locker, Brazdeikis, typically the epitome of quotable, could only muster a few words.
“It was just a play we ran,” Brazdeikis said.
When the officials ruled the ensuing out-of-bounds to be the Spartans’ ball, the writing was on the wall. For the third time in three weeks, the Wolverines were going to lose a high-stakes battle with their in-state rivals.
For much of the afternoon, it looked as if this day would be different. Brazdeikis was exuding his typical swagger, junior guard Zavier Simpson was commanding Michigan’s offense with aplomb and junior center Jon Teske anchored the Wolverines on both ends of the floor. Armed with an eight-point lead at halftime, coach John Beilein’s message was simply to stay poised.
And for much of the half, Michigan did just that. When sophomore forward Isaiah Livers buried a three with 2:29 left to give the Wolverines’ a 60-55 lead, sophomore guard Jordan Poole emphatically pumped his fist in front of the announcers’ table in relief. Around him, chants of “Let’s Go Blue” engulfed the building.
Seconds later, on the other end, Matt McQuaid responded with the last of his seven threes to draw back within two. When Livers was asked about the play in the locker room postgame, he dropped his head toward the floor, still scarred by the memory. After all, he knew what came next.
“Sucked the life right out of me after coming off the bench and hitting a three,” Livers said.
On the next possession, Poole forced up a contested three. The Wolverines’ next look was wide open for Simpson in the corner. Then came Brazdeikis’ look in the lane. After a missed free throw gave Michigan life, Poole forced up a running three in anticipation of a foul that never came.
“I'm sure he doesn't like the shot,” Beilein said. “We certainly didn't.”
Beilein was talking about Poole’s shot, but he could have easily been referring to any of them. Simpson’s was the only one that could qualify as a good look, except it ended in the hands of a player who shot under 30 percent from deep in conference play.
On the other end, the Spartans patiently worked their way into open spaces down the stretch, refusing to squander a single possession.
When asked about the late-game shot selection, sophomore forward CJ Baird told reporters, “We want to make sure that we take the best shot possible, the best shot that’s available.”
Then he paused and cracked a telling smile as he searched for wording that wouldn’t land him in trouble:
“And I think, as a team, on the floor, Michigan State had a little more experience than us.”
When posed with a nearly identical question, Livers didn’t bother to match Baird’s concealment.
And really, that was all that needed to be said. The Wolverines’ shot selection was no secret. An hour earlier, it had been on display in front of thousands of people — just as it was last weekend in East Lansing and two weeks earlier in Ann Arbor.
Livers told reporters he doesn’t ever want to feel these emotions again. But when his last-gasp baseball pass bounced off Poole’s hands and out of bounds with 1.8 seconds to go, he couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as stadium workers prepared the court for celebrations and a flurry of confetti that would soon rain down on the Spartans for the second week in a row.