That pesky question has hovered over the Michigan basketball program in recent years.
And Saturday’s 65-61 loss to No. 1 Ohio State was no different.
The Wolverines had numerous chances down the stretch but couldn’t make the plays or shots they needed in the final minutes to pull off the upset. Those closing moments soured what seemed to be a huge Michigan victory in the making.
The importance of knocking off the nation’s top team, coupled with the emotion of Senior Day, would have been a fitting way for Wolverine seniors Dion Harris, Brent Petway, Courtney Sims and Lester Abram to say goodbye to Crisler Arena. Instead, barring an improbable run in this week’s Big Ten Tournament, the team will be back at Crisler the following week to take another crack at the NIT.
“When you come so close and you know you have to get this win, (a moral victory) doesn’t really mean anything,” Sims said. “Slip-ups like we had at the end of (Saturday) cost us the season.”
Michigan’s agony began when Harris sprung loose for a 3-pointer with the score tied at 61 and two minutes remaining. Harris’s shot bounced in and out, and Ohio State took the rebound the other way, resulting in a Jamar Butler lay-up that gave the Buckeyes their first lead since the opening minutes of the second half.
The Wolverines tried to answer on their next possession when Petway found Sims alone under the rim. But the senior’s dunk hit the back rim and came out.
After Michigan stopped the Buckeyes on the ensuing possession, Harris drew a foul and went to the line for a one-and-one situation. The 86 percent free throw shooter came up short on his first attempt, leaving the Wolverines down two.
“I think I’m a great free-throw shooter, and to go up there and miss those with the opportunity to tie the game, that’s going to be tough (to get over),” Harris said. “That’s pretty much all that’s going through my mind.”
Needing a stop and a score in the final minute, Michigan failed to corral the rebound off a Mike Conley Jr. miss, and the Wolverines were forced to foul. Butler calmly sank a pair of free throws with 10 seconds left to ice the game, as disappointed fans headed for the exits.
“We lost a game that we had in our hands,” Harris said. “We should have won.”
The magnitude of the game was evident from the outset. Harris sank a shot from downtown for three of his game-high 19 points, and Michigan (8-8 Big Ten, 20-11 overall) jumped out to a quick lead with its four seniors starting together for the first time since a Feb. 13 loss at Michigan State.
But it wasn’t until early in the second half that everyone got a taste of just how badly Michigan coach Tommy Amaker wanted this game.
First, Michigan drew what appeared to be Greg Oden’s third foul, but the official assigned the foul to Ohio State’ s Ivan Harris instead. On the next possession, Dion Harris drove right at the Buckeyes’ 7-foot freshman phenom and drew contact without a call. Following that, Sims attacked the basket. Again, there was contact but no whistle.
That was all Amaker needed to see. Feeling his team wasn’t getting its fair shake in the lane, the normally reserved and collected Amaker immediately jumped in the official’s face and drew an uncharacteristic technical foul, as he angrily ripped off his jacket.
“Any time you see your coach fired up like that, you know he’s in it with you,” Petway said. “I think we were already playing hard, but I think we looked up and saw him battling for us as far as the officiating so we said we’re gonna battle some more for him.”
Michigan responded to Amaker’s passion with a 14-6 run for a 51-44 lead with nine minutes remaining.
Ohio State (15-1, 27-3) countered thanks to six of Oden’s team-high 16 points, and tied the game at 55. Michigan came right back with a Jerret Smith triple and three-point play from Sims to regain control, 61-55, with four minutes left in front of the raucous Crisler faithful.
But the fans’ faith quickly turned to despair. Ohio State clawed back once more and this time the Wolverines were out of answers.
Instead, Michigan was once again left to wonder “What if?”