ANAHEIM, Calif. — For all the highs of this season, the end wasn’t especially hard to see coming.
Back in January, Michigan sat on top of the world. Undefeated. The best start in program history. The driver’s seat in the Big Ten. The driver’s seat for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe the No. 1 overall ranking. Maybe a return trip to the Final Four. Maybe more.
But despite a top-ranked defense, despite a coach on par with any and despite an identity that made losing seem like an incomprehensible option, there were the Wolverines, playing out the season’s last minutes as a formality in a blowout loss. The reserves came on with 1:17 to go as redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews stood at the free throw line wearing the expression of a man at the end of the road.
Michigan’s season ended on Thursday night with a 63-44 loss to Texas Tech and, while the Red Raiders looked ahead to the Elite Eight on Saturday, the Wolverines sat on their bench, heads covered in towels so TV cameras might not catch the tears.
Afterwards, his eyes still wet and his towel still adorned, sophomore guard Jordan Poole could only offer platitudes at his team’s 1-of-19 3-point shooting performance, one that punctuated the Wolverines’ offensive struggles.
“We had a lot of open looks,” Poole said. “Lot of them didn’t go in. It happens.”
Against a Texas Tech defense as good as their own, the Wolverines had to score some points to win. They struggled to consistently meet that goal all year and on Thursday, failed to do so again. Michigan coach John Beilein estimated his team had six or eight good looks from outside, “and we didn’t make any of them.”
Initially, it seemed the Wolverines may not have needed to.
Eight minutes into the game, the two teams had five made field goals and six turnovers between them. If you are some kind of basketball sadist, the Honda Center might have felt like a five-star resort. For everyone else, it was a crucible.
Texas Tech led by eight at the half, enough that the Wolverines went into the locker room feeling like they just needed a couple shots to go down.
They never did. And, when the dam finally opened for the Red Raiders, it opened for good.
Davide Moretti keyed a 10-2 Red Raider run in the opening minutes of the second half, and with it, the end of the Wolverines’ season. The Red Raider guard hit Matt Mooney with a behind the back pass for three. Then he found Tariq Owens for a two-hand jam on a lob. To cap it off, he nailed a transition 3-pointer of his own, extending the lead to 18 points which, coincidentally, was as many as the Wolverines had scored by that point.
“I think we had a positive mindset coming out of (the half) and they hit us with a 7-0 run out of the half,” said assistant coach Luke Yaklich. “It got up to 13, 15 real quick. The amount of pressure that you put on your offensive possessions from that point forward, for the rest of the game, it was big. We did not make shots.”
Out of the ensuing timeout, Michigan left Owens off a pick-and-roll and, again, the big man threw down a dunk worthy of his size. On the bench, John Beilein sat, helpless, the heel of his palm resting on his chin.
For the remainder, the Wolverines waited for the clock to run out on a season that once held endless potential. All season, Michigan looked for a bucket-getter who could save it in just that situation. On Thursday, Ignas Brazdeikis led the team in scoring with 17 points, most of them after the game was out of hand. Matched up against a defense equal to their own, the Wolverines fell into the same listless offensive basketball that defined much of their struggles this season.
“We tried our best to get ready in two days for, even a different type of switching defense,” Beilein said. “But it wasn’t enough to get ready for a team that’s been doing that for 100 practices and 36 games. They were just better at it.”
Michigan took 19 3-pointers and the only make came with 22 seconds to go — far too little and far too late. It never found a way to get to the basket against the Red Raiders’ defense and, to boot, turned it over 14 times.
“We were really good,” Beilein said of the season. “Tonight was, we were not.”
And now, the Wolverines have six months to think about it.