KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It wasn’t the result they wanted, but there wasn’t much else the Wolverines could do.
A 73-63 loss to No. 2 seed Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday ended No. 10 seed Michigan’s quest to reach its first Sweet 16 since 1994. In the defeat, the Wolverines (21-14) faced adversity from every imaginable angle.
The Sooners were visibly more athletic, agile and physical. Oklahoma (29-5) had the Big 12 Player of the Year and likely Naismith Award winner for top collegiate baskeyball player in the nation, sophomore Blake Griffin, as well as the unanimous Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Willie Warren. And Oklahoma’s advantage was even more obvious once the game started.
Michigan’s two leading scorers and rebounders played just 18 minutes combined in the first half. All-Big Ten first-team sophomore Manny Harris sat the final 15 minutes of the half after being called for two quick fouls, and All-Big Ten second-team junior DeShawn Sims missed nine minutes after being poked in the eye.
But the Wolverines were down just 30-29 at the half, after Michigan coach John Beilein used six reserves. Forward Anthony Wright had the biggest impact, pouring in 12 first-half points.
“DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris, their names are highlighted on every single scouting report,” Wright said. “So just having guys like that, it kind of draws away from everybody else a little bit. I knew somebody had to step up with the scoring role, and I just took the shots that I think Coach would want me to take.”
The officials’ calls proved to be another obstacle Saturday. In the second half, Beilein was called for a technical after repeatedly asking a referee, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ after freshman Zack Novak was called for a foul when Blake Griffin knocked him down while powering up for a layup.
Harris and fifth-year senior C.J. Lee both fouled out for the first time all season, and, by looking at the Michigan players’ faces, it was easy to tell how they felt about some of the calls.
Regardless, Michigan still couldn’t stop Griffin. The Wolverines used their 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone defenses as well as double-teams to try and slow the sophomore, who notched his 28th double-double of the season with 33 points and 17 rebounds.
“There was no way we could stand there and slug it out with them,” Beilein said. “Like I said, this is one fantastic player on one very good team. There’s no way we could just matchup and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to slug it out with you in man-to-man.’ We had to keep changing.”
The strategy worked to an extent, forcing turnovers and making it difficult for Griffin at times. But Beilein said the 11 turnovers weren’t enough. Oklahoma point guard Austin Johnson and Warren combined for six 3-pointers, making it difficult for the Michigan defense to focus entirely on Griffin.
“Our guys played as hard, as well as we could tonight,” Beilein said. “I think we’re a better team than we played tonight, but it just didn’t work that way.”
Oklahoma’s quick 8-0 run to start the second half forced Michigan to play from behind the rest of the game. Despite that pressure, the Wolverines stayed competitive for the most part, even cutting the deficit to three with 6:04 left. The Sooners surged in the final two minutes, ending Michigan’s comeback bid.
It was the final collegiate game for seniors Lee, David Merritt, and Jevohn Shepherd, a trio that was instrumental in the Wolverines’ 11-win improvement from 2008.
“We had some Kleenexes out in (the locker room),” Beilein said. “They have been virtually no-maintenance, team-first guys from the very beginning.”
Before the season Beilein said the campaign would be a “roller coaster.” But there’s no denying there were more ups than downs in 2009, capped with the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998 and a first round win over No. 7 Clemson last Thursday.
“I’m definitely proud of our guys and program,” Lee said. “I’m proud of the possibility of where we can go and these guys did not stop until it’s all over. That’s all you can ask as a senior of your fellow teammates. That’s all a coach can ask of his players. So, I’ll remember that forever.”