INDIANAPOLIS — The Michigan men’s basketball team held aspirations of playing in the Final Four.
On Tuesday night, it came up just short. In a stunning upset, the Wolverines (23-5) fell to the East Region’s 11-seed UCLA (22-9), 51-49. The Bruins’ Johnny Juzang proved to be the night’s star, scoring 27 points en route to winning the East region’s Most Outstanding Player Award.
The Wolverines had chances to take the lead late, but two close misses from freshman center Hunter Dickinson and graduate transfer guard Mike Smith came up short. Ultimately, Michigan had several chances to clinch a spot in the Final Four, but its own errors acted as the impediment.
“It’s very disappointing for our guys, working extremely hard this year, coming down to, you know, one possession,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “And that’s how it goes sometimes. In the game of basketball, there’s one or two possessions that can really either help you or hurt you, and for us, we came up short.”
On its final possession, sophomore wing Franz Wagner airballed a 3-pointer before senior guard Eli Brooks failed to score on an offensive rebound. After Juzang split a pair of free throws, Smith missed on a pull-up 3-pointer. Michigan retained possession, but a shot from Wagner at the horn clanked off the rim, sealing the Wolverines’ fate.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Michigan had missed its final eight shots.
“We got the look, got the shot that we wanted,” Howard said. “Unfortunately there’s not much you can do with 0:05, but that shot was a nice little heave. Unfortunately, it just didn’t go in. Before that, we got an open look and just fell short but overall, I love the fact how our guys executed down the stretch.”
Turnovers proved to be Michigan’s undoing, committing 14 to UCLA’s eight and routinely coughing up the ball on possessions just when it appeared to finally be gaining momentum. From the line, the Wolverines struggled as well, shooting an uncharacteristic 6-for-11 after coming into the game shooting 77.8% from the charity stripe.
After halftime, the Bruins started hot. UCLA’s Tyger Campbell scored two quick makes before Juzang knocked down three free throws to give the Bruins a game-high nine-point advantage. After Michigan’s 10th turnover of the game, the reality of a season-ending defeat just shy of the Final Four’s doorstep began to set in.
Then, Michigan’s offense woke up.
Dickinson went to work down low for the Wolverines, scoring on two straight possessions to help pull Michigan within five. On the ensuing possessions, Brooks followed with two layups to cap an 8-0 run and force Bruins coach Mick Cronin to burn a timeout. The previously dormant Michigan offense was suddenly injected with life. UCLA, though, was ready with an answer.
The Bruins’ Cody Riley backed Dickinson down and finished inside before Dickinson was called for an illegal screen. Just minutes after it appeared the Wolverines were ready to retake the lead, UCLA once again answered. Even when a Dickinson free throw put Michigan up by one up with four minutes to play, a floater by the Bruins’ Jules Bernard gave UCLA the lead back.
“They played extremely, extremely hard,” Brooks said. “They earned that win. We’re not going to take anything away from them. But they made everything challenging, yeah.”
Wagner noticeably struggled, scoring just four points on 1-for-10 shooting and 0-for-4 from 3-point range, including two misses in the final seconds. Wagner, who has arguably been Michigan’s best all-around player in this postseason, struggled to make a dent in its most important contest of the year.
“Franz is one of the reasons why we’re here in this position,” Howard said. “I always have trust in all my players, and it’s never one guy’s fault because he doesn’t shoot the ball well. Together as a team, you win together and you lose together.”
Ultimately, the Wolverines’ storybook season ended just short of their lofty goals. And while nets were cut and confetti rained down, they watched.