EAST LANSING — Jordan Poole stood in a back hallway that snakes around the Breslin Center talking to a scrum of reporters that went three deep. You could barely hear him over the sound of Queen’s We Are the Champions.

“They were just able to get runs and make shots in the second half,” he said. “And we didn’t answer.”

Fifteen minutes later, the Wolverines left the building. The Spartans had yet to leave the court. As one team boarded its bus lamenting what could — what should — have been, the other climbed ladders and cut down nets, milling around to take in the scene, wanting to stay and take it in.

Well over an hour after the final buzzer, they stayed — family members and players and coaches and people who had some type of indiscernible tie to Michigan State basketball — because the Spartans beat Michigan, 75-63, taking a championship trophy straight from the Wolverines’ hands.

This was supposed to be Michigan’s celebration and Michigan’s trophy. If things went the way they were supposed to, this game wouldn’t have been played for anything but pride.

Fourteen months ago in the same building, Poole walked down the tunnel jawing at the Izzone after a win. On Sunday, he chewed on a towel with a sullen look on his face, walking to the losing locker room as the celebration started behind him, a reminder of an opportunity lost.

Michigan played the first half with two of its stars in foul trouble and a third, Charles Matthews, sitting on the bench with an injury. It took a six-point lead into the break anyway. That was supposed to be the disaster it averted on the way to a title.

In the second half, though, with Ignas Brazdeikis and Jon Teske back on the floor, the Wolverines fell apart. Up 50-45 with 12 minutes to go, they let up a 20-2 run, looking shell-shocked and lost as Breslin’s pressure-cooker burst.

“I think we imploded a little bit on a couple of occasions,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They blocked a couple shots during that time, and that was huge. And then we missed some shots. We even had a couple airballs. That’s really tough for us.

“Now, they’re out and they didn’t miss on their end. We lost some coverages in transition. They put you in great rotations. We tried to stay on that more than we did last time. They got to the foul-line like crazy.”

That implosion cost the Wolverines a regular-season championship. But really, it shouldn’t have come down to Saturday in the first place.

Seventeen games into the season, Michigan was 17-0. Had it won the 18th, the Wolverines would have likely ascended to the top ranking in the country.

And 10 games into Big Ten play, Michigan was 9-1, firmly in the driver’s seat. The lack of a banner commemorating it has less to do with Saturday than Jon Teske getting into foul trouble in Iowa, the entire team coming out flat at Penn State and a blown lead against the Spartans the first time around.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “But the better team won.”

He was talking about Saturday’s game. He might as well have been talking about the last six weeks.

Right now, this isn’t the same team that went to Villanova and ran the national champions off their home floor, and it isn’t the same team that made Roy Williams stand at a podium in November and rant that his Tar Heels “sucked.”

Michigan started this season by messing with every opponent’s psyche, winning with style. As Saturday’s game wound down, the Wolverines needing buckets in the biggest moment of their season, they had nobody to go to, no consistent answer. Across the floor, the Spartans’ bench whooped and hollered as Cassius Winston played just that role, scoring 16 points with four assists in the last 20 minutes, putting the whole building on a string.

There are flashes that Michigan can be the same team again. Just look to the first 28 or so minutes of both games against Michigan State. The potential for a deep NCAA Tournament remains. “We’re pretty good at winning,” Beilein said Saturday, and even after a crushing loss, he has a point.

But as good as the Wolverines started — this game and this season — it’s the finish that counts.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.

 

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