SAN ANTONIO — For a moment, for four whole days in fact, there was hope.
No matter how fleeting, there was finally a sense that the Michigan men’s basketball team had figured it out. All the preseason expectations, all the talent on the roster, had appeared to be culminating in a deep postseason run for the Wolverines after all.
But it took all of 40 minutes for that hope to go right down the drain.
Villanova (29-7 overall) had its versatile offense on full display, taking down Michigan (19-15) in a tight affair, 63-55. After an unexpected rally to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, the Wolverines late-season magic finally ran out.
“I think it just wasn’t our night out there,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said.
The first half didn’t go as planned for the Wolverines. Dickinson was in early foul trouble, and the offense struggled without him on the court. Villanova knocked down five three pointers, using their talented guards to create open looks. Michigan’s main advantage was its size, but the Wildcats outrebounded them 18-17.
As time wound down, sophomore wing Caleb Houstan launched a shot looking to tie the game at 31, but the ball unceremoniously ricocheted off the side of the backboard, a microcosm of the half.
The Wolverines found themselves in a familiar spot they had been in the last few games: needing to overcome a halftime deficit to keep its season alive.
But a second half attempt to get back in the game this time was marred by too many unforced errors. Too many missed shots in close, combined with turnovers, missed free throws and defensive breakdowns all told a story that didn’t end with a comeback victory.
“We got good looks,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “We just didn’t capitalize. I think we got the looks that we wanted. We just didn’t make the shots.”
Each time Michigan did make a shot and looked to go on a run, it was matched by a score from the Wildcats. The game, slowly, began to slip away. With under nine minutes left and their season on the line, the Wolverines trailed by eight.
The walls were caving in, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
Each basket electrified the Michigan faithful, but a Villanova response on the other end sat them right back down. Dickinson, who had been the most reliable scoring option all season for the Wolverines, could not find his shot to bail the Wolverines out when it mattered most. The big man finished 6-of-16 on the night, watching many post shots that had been as good as automatic most of the year unceremoniously rim out.
“Hunter got the ball in some good spots,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We got some good looks at the basket. Unfortunately, it just didn’t go our way.”
With less than four minutes left, there was one last desperation gasp from the Wolverines. A 3-pointer from fifth-year guard Eli Brooks brought the game within six, potentially sparking one one last surge to save their season.
But that flame never caught. After trimming the deficit to four, a 3-pointer from Villanova guard Collin Gillepsie with 1:49 served as the dagger, in the game and the season.
As the final seconds ticked away, despite all that talent and the chances being there for a win, they couldn’t find a way. They failed to seize the opportunity in front of them.
After partaking in the postgame handshake line, Michigan players began one last walk back to the tunnel — a path short in length that felt like an eternity as reality set in. Each player sullenly began the trek, digesting the sudden end to their season differently.
Some, like Dickinson, hung their heads low demoralized at the realization that the season was over. Others looked skyward, wondering what could’ve been.
“That’s how the game goes sometimes,” Howard said. “It’s a very competitive game. You have a lot of talented young men that’s here on this stage. Every team that’s playing in the Sweet Sixteen is really, really good.”
Howard paused then continued, pointing at his own players who flanked him at the post game presser:
“So are they. Nothing has to do with me. It’s all about them.”
It was all about them. And ultimately, with the season on the line and the chance to rise to the occasion, they came up short — one final time.