Simon Kaufman: For 20 minutes, a show
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Before taking the court on Friday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team huddled inside a tunnel, tucked away from the fans at the Barclays Center.
They jumped around. Loose. Yelling in response as Zak Irvin shouted in the middle.
“It’s that time again,” Irvin barked.
“Ahhh,” they hollered back.
Irvin and the team went back and forth, him shouting, them answering.
I said it’s that time again.
We on a big stage.
Under the bright lights.
Guess what we about to do?
We about to put on a show.
And then, they ran from the tunnel, took the court, and for 20 minutes, they did just that. They put on a show.
And it was a big stage.
In the matter of a week, the Wolverines willed themselves into the NCAA Tournament’s First Four in Dayton, Ohio and then gutted their way into a trip to Brooklyn and a meeting with No. 6 seed Notre Dame.
And you want bright lights? Try a 10:12 p.m. tip off on CBS with 17,502 packed in the crowd.
And for a half, none of it fazed them.
They shot the ball like a John Beilein-coached team is supposed to. Michigan went 16-for-31 from the field and knocked down seven 3’s in the half.
They shared the ball like a cold in a kindergarten classroom. Their 12 first-half assists are the most they’ve had in a first frame since their last non-conference game against Bryant on Dec. 23.
And they defended the ball with an aggressiveness that’s been missing. The Wolverines produced 10 turnovers and seven steals to help secure a 12-point halftime lead.
But then the stage got bigger and the lights got brighter, and in the second half, Michigan didn’t put on a show. It was shown up.
Notre Dame came out of the gate with an 8-2 run and then, just like that, less than eight minutes into the second half, the Wolverines’ lead was gone. The Fighting Irish used sharp shooting and stingy defense to storm back and tie the game. The two teams traded blows down the stretch with the lead changing five times.
And when the lights were brightest, with less than four minutes and the game knotted, Notre Dame forward V.J. Beachem hit a 3-pointer. Irvin missed his try from deep on the other end. The Irish closed out in the home stretch. Michigan went home.
As Notre Dame hit free throws late to ice the game, Irvin stood at midcourt, hands on hips. Stunned.
In the locker room after the game, Derrick Walton Jr. wiped away tears from a usually stone-cold face. Duncan Robinson sat with his arm over Moritz Wagner. Wagner sat doubled over, his jersey hiding his face. Andrew Dakich was perched back in his locker, away from it all.
They were trying to figure out how they blew a 12-point lead. What went wrong in the second half, why they would head back to Ann Arbor on Saturday instead of prep for a second-round game.
But they also wondered what they could’ve been if that team that showed up in the first half — the one that put on a show — had showed itself earlier in the season.
“We’ll never know how special this group could have been,” Walton said. “In my mind it could have been one of the best.”
One of the best?
Yeah, for 20 minutes it looked the part of a team that could gut out wins and make a run in March.
Wagner was throwing down dunks and beating his chest like a kid who’s played in the tournament before — not one who watched from his couch in Berlin last year. Walton showed flashes of looking like another guard Michigan had a few years ago. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman showed flashes of looking like Walton — capable of scoring, capable of leading.
It didn’t look like that Michigan team that couldn’t hit shots from any range against Connecticut in the Bahamas. Or the team that came out dead flat against Michigan State earlier this season and got walloped in front of its home fans. Or the one that couldn't close on the road late against Maryland.
It looked like the team people thought it would be with Caris LeVert heading things up — even as LeVert watched from the bench. Walton and Irvin provided the leadership on the court, and, for the first time in a long time, for a whole half everything clicked.
“We were loose and confident,” Dakich said. “We played with that no-fear mentality. It was fun to be a part of, and fun to watch on the bench and fun to play with.”
Perhaps it was a fitting end for a team that struggled to have everything click on the same night during the regular season. It showed what they were capable of. What they could have been.
“You know you can always have those ‘what ifs,’ especially at the end of your season,” Irvin said. “But I just think that shows the strides we were able to make from the beginning of the season.”
Walton thought those 20 minutes validated their year.
“We can play with the best of them and showed it,” Walton said.
For 20 minutes they showed it.
On the big stage, under the bright lights, they put on a show.
But now, the lights are out, and the show is over.
Simon Kaufman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sjkauf.