It was always supposed to come down to this: Michigan and Indiana for the Big Ten championship. And what a heartbreaker it was.
Trey Burke, always a step ahead, was working in slow motion as he started the ball up the court with 13.7 seconds on the clock.
Burke had Cody Zeller beat with the left hand, and he nearly got to the rim, but Zeller, fresh off muscling in the go-ahead basket on the other end of the court, got his towering 7-foot frame there just in time. Burke tried to correct, looping a shot over Zeller’s outstretched arms. It bounced off the far side of the rim and back out.
Jordan Morgan rose next, banking a left-handed tip-back attempt off the glass. The junior forward’s shot met the lip of the iron and rolled around a quarter of the rim. Then, as fate tilted with it, the ball rolled out.
Indiana 72, Michigan 71. The Hoosiers are outright Big Ten champions.
Victor Oladipo, a villain at the outset of the contest for his late-game antics last month in Bloomington, couldn’t contain himself. He dove down, smacked the midcourt stripe and kissed the Crisler Center floor.
Moments later, Oladipo, with tears spilling down his cheeks, embraced Indiana coach Tom Crean. After 18 games in the toughest conference in the NCAA, the Hoosiers were the one team — the only team — left standing.
Michigan, which could have forced a potential four-way time atop the Big Ten by toppling Indiana, just couldn’t finish. Unbeaten all season at Crisler Center, the Wolverines couldn’t hold serve. A five-point lead with the ball and a minute left on the clock. Somehow, that wasn’t enough.
The free throws weren’t free. The breakaway foul was just a foul. The trademark Burke step-back jumper turned instead into a drive and scoop over a 7-footer.
With everything at stake, the Wolverines faltered. The rankings, the budding Michigan-Indiana rivalry, the tournament seeds, the three Player of the Year candidates on the court — each battle turned toward Indiana when Morgan’s final put-back rolled off the rim.
Out of time. Out of second chances. Out of luck.
It’s hard to grasp perspective right now. It’s hard to appreciate what exactly the Wolverines accomplished this season. But, if you take a moment (and try to forget that loss to Penn State), it’s pretty astounding.
Michigan christened the pristine, renovated Crisler Center with a 25-6 season, with three losses coming against top-10 teams. Burke is in contention for both Big Ten and national player of the year honors. Two freshmen started, all five saw serious time, and the seniors saw little to none. It was far from a traditional Michigan basketball team, but it was a heck of a regular season, wasn’t it?
I won’t forget it. The alley-oops, the jerseys, the Fresh Five.
But that finish still burns. It stings tenfold more for the players, too.
But they, like every contender, know that this is where the real business begins. This Michigan team was built to contend in the Big Ten, and it did. And it was built to contend in the postseason. Whether it will? That’s up to the team.
If all five starters show up; if Burke stays a step ahead, doesn’t waver; if Michigan can out-run and out-effort and out-scheme, it’s going to be an exciting finish. It’s single elimination from here on out, through the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s to the journey winding down for a little longer than last year, when Michigan collapsed against middling Ohio in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
As Oladipo dove across the block ‘M’ and kissed the floor, Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. and the rest of the roster slowly made its way off the court. The arena, which had students lined up outside the gates almost 24 hours earlier, was silent.
It was heartbreak felt by all 12,693 in attendance. And that heartbreak lingered on after the seats emptied, the lights blinked off, and the darkness enveloping Ann Arbor closed down Crisler for the season.
They won’t be back, not this year. But despite the sting of defeat, there’s still everything to look forward to.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.