INDIANAPOLIS — Mike Smith had the game in his hands.
With the shot clock turned off and trailing by one, Michigan entrusted Smith with its fate. Isolated on the perimeter with 6-foot-8 E.J. Liddell, he had a chance to be the hero and cap off a furious comeback, vaulting his team into the Big Ten Tournament final.
Smith heaved. The shot, and the Wolverines’ aspirations, clanked off the back iron.
In Saturday’s Big Ten Semifinal, the shorthanded Michigan men’s basketball team (20-4 overall, 14-3 Big Ten) fell just short, edged by Ohio State (21-8, 12-8), 68-67. A resilient comeback, and miraculous ending, was not to be.
“Oh, (we) got exactly what we wanted,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Mike, for a ball screen, and we got the switch. And we got a good look at it.
“At the end of the day, we all have to keep our head up. … It hurts when you lose. That’s part of this game of basketball. Sometimes, it makes you excited but then, when you get on that other side, (that of) the loss column, sometimes it brings you to your knees.”
On Saturday, it did just that.
With 5:17 minutes left to play, the Wolverines looked dead in the water. Ohio State forward Justice Sueing reeled in an offensive rebound and finished with a lay-in, drawing a fifth foul on sophomore wing Franz Wagner in the process. At once, Michigan lost arguably its best player and saw the Buckeye lead balloon to eleven.
The outcome seemed all but wrapped up, until it wasn’t.
With a bit of moxie, the Wolverines clawed themselves back. In the final two minutes, Michigan forced three Ohio State turnovers. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson accounted for a pair of baskets, including a strip-steal of Liddell. Senior guard Chaundee Brown, scoreless for the first 39 minutes, drilled a contested 3-pointer to bring the Wolverines within one.
“That was special, man,” Howard said of the run.
Ultimately, it was simply too little, too late.
Michigan’s offense, struggling in the absence of senior forwarwd Isaiah Livers, failed to keep pace with Ohio State’s high-powered attack. Livers, sidelined with a stress injury in his foot, accounts for 13.1 points per game, the second-highest mark on the team, and shoots it at a 45% clip from deep. A senior captain, he is, in many senses, the glue that holds them together.
Without him, Michigan shot just 35% from the field and 31% from deep, all against an Ohio State defense ranked 76th nationally, per KenPom.
“Missing him was obviously gonna be a big hill that we had to climb over,” Dickinson said.
A strong defensive effort kept Michigan afloat, with the Wolverines clenching a one-point lead at the half. Liddell and guard Duane Washington, the Buckeyes’ two leading-scorers, combined for 10 first half points. As a whole, Ohio State shot just 30% from the field.
In the second half, the Buckeye offense — fourth in the nation, per KenPom — rounded into form, shooting 58%. Washington added 19 second-half points on 7-of-11 shooting, leaving the Wolverines in the dust.
Wagner, carrying more of the offensive burden in Livers’s absence, failed to produce, shooting 2-of-10 for eight points. Smith, yesterday’s star, looked like a shell of himself and finished 1-of-11 from the field. Brown, needed for a spark, made just one basket.
Across the board, clean looks resulted in empty trips. When shots started falling, the deficit proved insurmountable.
“Am I proud of my team? Damn right I am,” Howard said. “I love this group. Unfortunately today, we just experienced what some teams have already experienced. We lost a game, a tough battle, and now we gotta get ready for the NCAA Tournament, and I think it’s gonna be great for us to experience what we experience and not look back, keep forging ahead.”
That’s the challenge for teams in March. One more loss will end Michigan’s season.
“If you go into the NCAA Tournament thinking that you’re gonna lose, then you’re gonna lose,” Dickinson said. “It’s on the back of our shooting shirts: ‘For competitors only.’ ”
Time will tell how Michigan moves forward. By Saturday’s final buzzer, shoulders sagged and heads down, the Wolverines disappeared one-by-one up the tunnel, lamenting what could have been.
A disappointing outcome to cap off an especially deflating day.