Step up to the line. Give high-fives to the guys lining up on the paint. Stretch out an arm or a quad. Catch the ball from the ref. Take a dribble, maybe two. Maybe practice a shooting motion.
A buzzing crowd at the Crisler Center claps once, then goes silent, the air teeming with their anticipation. Visualize it: that perfect arc; net, net, net.
One more dribble.
The ball goes up, and for a few tense seconds, everything on the court — everything in the arena — narrows in on nylon and iron and glass.
The shot doesn’t fall.
And moments later, someone in orange puts up a game-winning prayer, and this time it does fall, and it’s over. And there, in that moment as the clock winds down to zero and a collective gasp escapes the once-exuberant crowd, is defeat, yet again, taken cruelly from the jaws of a desperately-needed victory.
In the final minutes of Michigan’s heartbreaking 64-62 loss to No. 21 Illinois at home on Saturday, the Wolverines missed five straight free throws in the final three-and-a-half minutes of the game.
Five missed opportunities. Five opportunities that could have, maybe should have, changed the outcome of a game Michigan could not afford to lose. Five opportunities to snap a three-game losing streak. Five opportunities to defend home court in a conference where it’s imperative to do so.
And not one of them went in.
“Yeah, it’s really tough right now,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said, visibly upset, after the game. “But the way our culture works is that we just stick together. We come closer together and we’ll figure it out. I like the way we fought throughout the whole game. Just gotta reward ourselves at the end.”
Michigan led, 62-60, with two and a half minutes left in regulation. It was awarded three free throws after gaining that lead — free throws that, if made, would’ve made it a two-possession game. That, if made, just might have moved Saturday’s loss into the win column.
At this point in the season, those are not chances that the Wolverines can afford to give up. And the team knew it.
“It hurts. It hurts everyone,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “It’s just unfortunate for us, because we didn’t do a good job of making our free throws.
“You come in after a game like this, when you lose it, and you see nothing but red eyes. And you know that heads are down. Everyone’s been crying. It’s awful. And it hurts you as a coach. Because I feel like I let them down.
“That’s the worst feeling ever.”
Michigan now sits at 11-8 overall, and a disheartening 2-6 in conference play, putting it tied with Ohio State for 10th in the Big Ten. It is far from where they pictured themselves at the beginning of the season, and even farther from where everyone saw them after their stunning run in the Bahamas two months ago.
More importantly, though, it is far from where this team could be, if just a few of those opportunities had shaken out differently.
March is closer than the Bahamas now. And if Michigan wants to make the NCAA Tournament — something that’s seeming more and more questionable these last few weeks — they need to start winning games like these. At 11-8, with six conference losses, the Wolverines don’t exactly have a sterling tournament resume.
The emotion — the disappointment — that is inextricably linked to the realization that Michigan is not playing as well as it can is clear in the players’ faces. It was palpable in Wagner’s voice as he choked up talking about how the game slipped out of his hands to a crowd of reporters surrounding him.
It’s probably not unrelated to the team’s struggles as of late. For a team — and a coach — that has preached confidence from the start, it is growing ever harder to believe, and that lack of self-assuredness has been hurting them in games lately — games they need to be winning if they want to stick around for March.
“I’m not gonna lie, it’s really hard for me to stand up here right now,” Wagner said. “It’s my two free throws. Yeah, it’s really hard. That’s how basketball works, though. Obviously, you gotta be ready for those type of moments.”