BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Michigan rocketed toward its own ceiling Friday with the force of a team finally aware it could be special, only to hit its peak at halftime and crash forcefully back earthward.
The end result was a season-ending thud: a 70-63 loss to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Just as painful as being sent home by a loss was the stark difference between the first and second half, which might as well have featured two different sets of Wolverines.
“We were playing great defense, we were able to get stops and we ended with a basket,” junior guard Zak Irvin said of the opening frame. “We were happy with how we were playing. We knew we didn’t want to have another sluggish start like we did against Tulsa. We were trying to avoid that.”
Michigan scored the game’s first five points and built a 13-point advantage, riding an intensity it seemed to have saved for the bright lights of the Barclays Center. The biggest generators? Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr., whose four first-half steals left the Fighting Irish spinning, and freshman forward Moritz Wagner, who could do no wrong with the ball in his hands.
Twice, Wagner checked into the game, each time scoring within seconds. He capped the half with a steal and a finish on the other end that rolled around the cylinder twice before finally deciding to drop through. Wagner spun and led the Wolverines’ charge into the locker room, where, leading 41-29, they might have been tempted to contemplate the prospect of an improbable Sunday matchup with 14-seed Stephen F. Austin for a berth in the Sweet 16.
The Wolverines couldn’t handle the pressure — mental or defensive — and everything they did right in the first half went disastrously wrong in the second.
“I think we’ve got to feel like some of our Big Ten partners today,” Beilein said. “You have everything, but you know, one game, if you have a bad game or you have a bad half, it’s over. It should sit in there, and it should upset you, and it should really motivate you as well.”
The bad that ended everything came from all angles. Sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman went 1-for-6 from the field in the second half after a 12-point outburst in the first frame, and Walton went scoreless. Junior forward Zak Irvin couldn’t help, either, finishing 4-for-16 from the field and a disastrous 1-for-9 from 3-point range.
Most significantly, a controversial late-game charge call on what could have been an and-1 shifted the momentum forever in Notre Dame’s favor, as it marked Wagner’s fourth personal foul and forced him to ride the bench for 17 of the final 20 minutes.
“It’s really not my call,” Wagner said of the whistle, which many thought should have been called a block. “I don’t need to judge that. I didn’t see it. I just thought to go up there. The shot clock was (winding down).”
In the locker room postgame, streaks of optimism punctuated the gloomy and sometimes teary vibe. Some said the 41-point first half may have just been a preview of next year’s team, which will return every active player from the 2015-16 squad.
Senior guards Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert effectively ended their seasons in December, leaving Big Ten season to the next generation a few months earlier than anticipated. Without its two leaders, the team’s expectations were adjusted, perhaps lessening the force of a blow still too fresh for the Wolverines to fully process.
“We had to go through a lot of adversity, losing our two seniors, our two captains,” Irvin said. “People didn’t even think we were going to make the NCAA Tournament, so for us to be able to do that, (the season) definitely ended pretty strong. It’s just tough to swallow this loss.”