ANAHEIM, Calif. — Amid an eerie silence, bowed heads and tear-filled eyes, one telling phrase rang through the Michigan locker room:
“Bad day to have a bad day.”
It came from Jordan Poole. It came from Jon Teske. It came from Isaiah Livers.
Most of all, it came from Luke Yaklich, the Wolverines’ defensive mastermind of an assistant coach who watched his carefully curated pièce de résistance get shredded in a humiliating, 63-44, season-ending loss at the hands of Texas Tech.
Yaklich got the phrase from Dan Muller, the head coach at Illinois State during Yaklich’s four-year tenure with the Red Birds. Muller, though, never had to use it to explain the abrupt end of a season that had started 17-0 and nearly peaked in the nation’s top ranking.
Thursday night in Anaheim, Yaklich had to do exactly that. The explanation included crediting the Red Raiders — “Because Texas Tech’s really good,” he responded when asked why the Wolverines couldn’t climb back into the game. As well as a requisite dose of frustration: “The rubber ball didn’t hit the iron rim the right way for us tonight.”
But to those around Yaklich, the “why” didn’t matter. As Yaklich spoke, Zavier Simpson vehemently did not.
The junior point guard sat in Yaklich’s shadow with his head buried deep in his hands, shrouded by a March Madness towel. He faced toward his locker but his head was fixated on the ground, leaving only his back visible to onlookers as his stifled tears spread through the room.
Back on the court, Simpson kept his poise for as long as possible, broadcasting the message of, “We’re gonna win this game” through every Wolverines’ huddle.
But every time Simpson’s message seemed ready to come to fruition, Michigan’s hole only worsened.
“It was a little helpless at times,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… We’re not a great team coming from behind. We all know, we’re a defensive team this year. And we had trouble scoring points. And now we gotta score points and we’re down 18?”
Before that deficit worsened to 18 — and eventually 25 — it sat at three as junior center Jon Teske fired off a three that had seemingly tied the game at 13. Like each of the Wolverines’ first 18 attempts from deep would, it rimmed out.
“Yeah, I mean, we had a lot of great looks. Mine was three-quarters of the way down, not even halfway down,” Teske said. “… Their defense bothered us a little bit, but our shots weren’t falling.”
The rebound, though, landed in freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis’ hands. The Wolverines wouldn’t tie the game, but they would cut it to one on a putback that Brazdeikis could hit in his sleep.
But not on this night. On this night, that putback rimmed out, just as Teske’s three had. On this night, the ensuing loose ball caromed off Brazdeikis’ arms and out of bounds. On this night, Texas Tech’s Matt Mooney fired off a turnaround three two possessions later, striking the backboard just as the shot-clock turned to ‘1’ and dropping through the net a split-second later.
Texas Tech would replicate that three, in less dramatic fashion, four more times. Michigan didn’t hit from beyond the arc until its starters sat on the bench, heads in hands, watching the walk-ons play out the string on a season that began the night with so much promise.
“You go 1-for-19 from three, that’s not characteristic of who we are,” said assistant coach Saddi Washington. “I don’t think we’ve done that all season.”
Whether it was characteristic or not is immaterial. The Wolverines got 18 do-overs from three on Thursday night. For six months, the time for trying again is over.
Before Michigan got there, though, there was still hope.
There was still hope as Teske opened the second half by missing a pair of free throws that could have cut the Wolverines’ deficit to six. One possession later, there was still hope as redshirt junior Charles Matthews fired up a catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt with the same goal in mind — get Michigan back into the game.
Like Teske’s free throws, it fell harmlessly to the floor, smacking off baseline lettering that read, ‘The Road to the Final Four.’
Not for Michigan. Not on this night. Not this season.