Last possession wins.
As the seconds ticked down in the final minutes of Thursday’s slugfest between Michigan and Oregon, those were the three words everyone was thinking.
Every shot, every dribble, every pass would count for more. As the Wolverines and the Ducks exchanged the lead five times in the final five minutes, all it could take for either team to emerge with the win was one of something.
Inevitably, Oregon emerged with one more than Michigan in several categories:
One defensive rebound…
…Oregon inevitably outrebounded Michigan. The Wolverines had worked so hard to overcome many defensive shortcomings in the second half of the season, but the one area that proved to be their Achilles Heel was the offensive glass. Michigan will finish ranked 212th out of 351 teams in offensive rebound percentage on defense.
For the game’s first 38 minutes, the Wolverines had done as good a job as ever, limiting the Ducks’ second chance opportunities. Oregon had just four offensive rebounds and two second-chance points. Senior wing Zak Irvin and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson were making aggressive moves to ensure they weren’t outmuscled or out-positioned Duck defenders — plays they weren’t making earlier in the season.
But in the last two minutes, two relapses proved to be the costliest offensive boards Michigan would give up all season.
The first — off a missed front end of a one-and-one — would have given the Wolverines the ball up three with 1:49 to go. Instead, Oregon forward Jordan Bell grabbed the loose ball and went straight up to the basket for the put back.
“If I could, I’d do anything to take back that one shot,” Wilson said. “That offensive rebound on the free throw that I missed that resulted in two points. That’s the one point that really sticks out to me the most.”
That Bell score was the first of a 4-0 run that put the Ducks in the lead for good. After the second basket, Michigan needed another stop with less than a minute to go for a shot to win the game on the final possession.
The Wolverines ended up forcing Oregon forward Dillon Brooks into a rushed layup at the end of the shot clock, but left Bell free without a block out again. The forward came down with his second offensive rebound in the final two minutes, and Michigan had no choice but to foul.
Just one of those rebounds could have sent the Wolverines off to extend their lead or find a winning bucket.
Instead, their biggest weakness hit it at the worst possible time.
“We knew we were going to have to get stops down the stretch, and we didn’t get those stops,” said junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “We gave up offensive rebounds, fly-bys on drives, things of that nature. You just can’t have that at the end of the game. You have to be standing there and get stops.”
… the Ducks committed in the second half. Michigan’s turnover margin was winning it games this postseason. The Wolverines were forcing opponents into 12.8 turnovers per game in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, while only committing 7.8 per game themselves.
But Oregon never seemed to be making the passes that could be served up for Michigan to pick off. Or dribble into the wrong lanes. Or make the mistakes that could have sent the Wolverines into transition for a momentum-changing basket.
“I don’t think we’ve had the same pressure we have had in the past,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I don’t know why. I don’t think it’s fatigue. They’re a great team that took care of the ball better than we did.”
Michigan’s defensive renaissance over the past couple months had winning the turnover battle as the keystone that held everything up. But Oregon knew if it took care of the basketball, they’d be in as good as any position to win it in the end.
… More Oregon made from the field than Michigan. Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr’s pull-up jumper in the final seconds may stand out, but the Wolverines had other chances in the final minutes to put pressure on the ducks.
Walton himself had a chance to finish a layup — a similar look to the dagger he put in the final minute against Louisville last Sunday — to put Michigan up three, but came up too strong.
Wilson had a look from three after Oregon took the lead with a minute left, but he ended up air balling his chance, and the Ducks were bailed out.
Michigan and Oregon each had 58 field goal attempts. The Ducks made 26 shots. The Wolverines hit 25.
All together — that one offensive rebound, that one missing turnover, and that one unwise shot cost Michigan a one-point game in a tournament where you only need one loss to go home.
“It basically just says the ball didn’t go our way,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “Shots didn’t go in and they were the better team today. You only have to beat a team once in the NCAA Tournament, and they did that.”