INDIANAPOLIS — It was all there for the taking. The win, a trip to the Final Four, all lay within arms reach for the Michigan men’s basketball team. And yet, despite their best efforts, the Wolverines couldn’t capitalize.
UCLA scored just five points in the last 5:42 minutes of Tuesday night’s Elite Eight matchup. After self-assured senior guard Chaundee Brown Jr. knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the game 20 seconds later, Michigan scored just three on the way to a 51-49 loss.
The game was a grudge match in every sense of the word. When two teams combine for 100 points, every missed free throw, every missed shot proves even more consequential. Down the stretch, the Wolverines had a myriad of missed opportunities — converting any one of them would’ve vaulted them into next weekend.
“Yeah, both teams missed some shots that we normally make,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “If you look at the shooting percentage, you know, it was truly a Big Ten style of play. … It was a hard-fought game on both sides.”
The Wolverines’ shooting struggles culminated in a missed off-balanced 3-point heave from sophomore wing Franz Wagner as time expired, but the seeds of Michigan’s downfall were sown well before. The Wolverines shot just 39% from the field, 27% from deep and 55% from the foul line. Both freshman center Hunter Dickinson and graduate guard Mike Smith each missed a pair of free throws. For two 75%-or-better free-throw shooters on the season, misfires like that don’t just take points off the board, but also kill any semblance of momentum. Smith’s two misses came in the closing seconds of the first half, and would’ve cut a four-point deficit down to just two entering the break — a minor statistical difference, yes, but significant nevertheless.
From the 5:22 minute mark of the second half on, the Wolverines had numerous opportunities to take control. Trailing by just one point with 2:06 remaining, Dickinson’s left-handed hook shot grazed the rim. A shot that Dickinson had converted all season long, failed the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in the biggest moment of his young career. On the following possession, off a steal from Brown, Smith missed a layup.
Unfortunately for Michigan, the misses didn’t stop there. Having been bailed out by an ill-advised three-pointer from the Bruins, the Wolverines ran a set for Wagner. Down just by one point and with Wagner struggling for confidence — shooting 1-of-10 from the field with just four points overall — he found himself virtually unguarded at the top of the key for a three-pointer. Wagner airballed it.
Still, after UCLA wing Johnny Juzang missed the second of two free throws with six seconds remaining, Michigan had a chance to tie or take the lead. Smith caught the inbounds pass on a curl, raced the full length of the court and lofted a 3-pointer with two seconds on the clock.
The Wolverines could’ve tied it with a two-pointer. Smith’s defender, Tyger Campbell, was back-pedaling — his momentum carrying him toward the basket. Smith, to Campbell’s surprise, pulled up from deep. His 3-pointer too, didn’t sink. It just seemed like it wasn’t meant to be.
“When you lose, it’s very challenging,” Howard said. “It’s hard to start thinking about, you know, would of, could of, should have.”
Added senior guard Eli Brooks: “We were in place to make shots, and came up short.”
Brooks was right. Michigan had the time, space and opportunities to hit shots throughout the game, and especially in the closing minutes. Unlike most nights this season though, there was a lid on the basket and that couldn’t have happened at a worse juncture.
“That’s how it goes sometimes,” Howard said. “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.”