Betelhem Ashame: Just like that
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Everyone called them a Cinderella team. Everyone except the Wolverines.
After the plane accident two weeks ago, the practice uniforms and the Big Ten Tournament title run, the Michigan men’s basketball team was living a dream. In those four days, the Wolverines blew out Illinois, knocked off Purdue, escaped from Minnesota and ran past Wisconsin.
Just like that, they opened their postseason 4-0 and had a trophy to show for it.
But that run started much earlier than Wednesday. It started in New York City.
Back in November, Michigan beat Marquette and SMU by a combined 40 points and captured a 2K Classic Championship at Madison Square Garden. Against the Golden Eagles, five Wolverines reached double-digit point tallies, none of whom were named Derrick Walton Jr. or Moritz Wagner. Against the Mustangs, seniors Walton and Zak Irvin scored a combined 51 points. As a team, Michigan held both opponents under 40 percent shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc.
Just like that, the Wolverines opened their season 4-0 and had a trophy to show for it.
The start of the Big Ten season couldn’t have been any more different. Though Michigan had bright spots in two late wins and two blowouts, the Wolverines lost their other six games. With a 4-6 record after a loss to Ohio State on Feb. 4, Michigan officially hit rock bottom.
That opening run filled with so much optimism for the upcoming year looked like it had reached its permanent conclusion.
But in Ann Arbor three days later, that run began again.
Starting with a blowout win over Michigan State and ending with a blowout win over Nebraska, the Wolverines changed the course of their entire season. Ripping off a 6-2 stretch — highlighted by upsets over then-No. 11 Wisconsin and then-No. 14 Purdue — Michigan finished its regular season with a 10-8 record. Its only losses during that span came to Minnesota in overtime and to Northwestern on a buzzer-beater.
The Wolverines entered the Big Ten Tournament as a No. 8 seed. They didn’t play like it.
Then they entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed. The cycle repeated in Indianapolis.
Against No. 10 seed Oklahoma State, Michigan put up some of its highest numbers of the season. Twenty-six points for Walton, 19 for DJ Wilson and 16 for both Irvin and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. With an 11-for-15 performance from beyond the arc in the second half, the Wolverines pulled off the 92-91 win.
Against No. 2 seed Louisville, Michigan received comparable contributions from its key players. Twenty-six points for Wagner, 17 for Wilson, 11 for Irvin and 10 for Walton. Earning the edge in second-half points at 45-33, the Wolverines came back for the 73-69 win.
Michigan headed to Kansas City for the Sweet 16 on a six-game winning streak. Beating No. 3 seed Oregon would be no easy task, but neither was the run that brought them there.
Everyone called them a Cinderella team. Everyone except the Wolverines.
“Our team is doing a great job with limiting distractions,” Irvin said. “Because I think it’s so easy right now to get off track and just lose focus, and I think our leadership and our seniors have done a great job with that.
“It’s been a heck of a run that we’re on, and we’re playing really well right now. We just don’t want it to end.”
But Thursday night, the magic came to an end. So too did Michigan’s season.
Against the Ducks, Walton and Irvin combined for 39 points. Irvin hit a 3-pointer to take a 64-63 lead with 3:35 remaining, and Walton hit another to take a 68-65 lead with just 2:02 left. The Wolverines scored 35 points in the second half to Oregon’s 34.
But Wagner, Wilson and Abdur-Rahkman scored just 21 points. Michigan’s defense allowed four Ducks to hit double figures. In the end, the 3-pointers didn’t come in time, and the second-half surge never came.
Walton’s shot at the buzzer fell short, and the Wolverines walked away losing 69-68.
“The kids fought their hearts out this whole season, but particularly this last six weeks to be more than a story,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It was a great team.”
But Thursday night, the story came to an end. So too did Michigan’s season.
Just like that.
Ashame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame. Please be kind.