NEW ORLEANS — It ended with Chris Webber looking desperately for something he didn’t have — time, hope, help. He grabbed a rebound, his team trailing by two points, and he called for time, he screamed for it. The ref stared at him blankly. Confused, Webber muscled his way up court, panic in his eyes, he traveled, but this one man-against-everything journey seemed to have everyone’s tongues tied, including the referee’s. And so here was Webber, clock ticking down, still running, still dribbling, pounding the ball with his giant hands, going past his bench, wanting help, wanting a time-out, no one able to make clear to him that Chris, we don’t have any time-outs left. Finally, he pulled up, stopped, like a man who realizes he is cornered by police. He made the “T” sign, looked at the ref, who made the “T” sign right back.

Technical foul.

Disaster.

“We were screaming, ‘No time-outs! No time-outs!’ ” James Voskuil said Monday night in the dejected Michigan locker room after the Wolverines fell for the second straight time in the NCAA championship game, losing to North Carolina, 77-71. “But with all that noise and all those people screaming, ‘No time- out,’ who knows? Maybe all you hear is ‘Time-out!’ And he called for one.”

And with that, the run on destiny that these Wolverines had made, against their own legend, against amazing odds, all the way to very end of the college basketball rainbow, was over. North Carolina, which won a national championship 11 years earlier in this same building, on another freak play, a pass from the opposition, won it again, same way.

And instead of a U-M celebration, Wolverines cutting down nets, the sad final picture of this 1993 season will be this: The Fab Five standing on the half-court line, watching helplessly as North Carolina sank the two technical free throws that would put this game out of reach. Ray Jackson was on one knee, as if praying. Juwan Howard looked like he had lost a friend. Jimmy King had his hands on his hips, Jalen Rose had his head lowered and Webber, well, he was stunned. All he had done, all the slams, the monster rebounds, the steals, the baskets he made falling down, his 23 points, his 11 boards, his 33 minutes — all that, gone in a simple, desperate mistake.

“I cost us the game,” he mumbled afterwards.

A few minutes later. “I cost us the game.”

He left the post-game podium and shut himself inside a staff room and he didn’t emerge for almost an hour. He walked quickly toward the bus, eyes forward, fighting everything inside him, ignoring reporters, ignoring the lights, ignoring everything until one of his younger brothers came up and hugged him, and Chris Webber could hold it no more. He began to cry. His father stepped up and hugged him, too, and now Chris began to sob. He was, at that moment, in the hallway of a stadium 1,000 miles from home, what we always forget that all these college basketball players are:

A kid.

“I cost us the game.” No need to analyze

In the sadness of that moment, you almost don’t want to analyze it. A basketball game is 40 minutes long, and every bad play counts the same. You only remember the last ones.

But OK. The truth is, they’ll be talking about it forever, so for what it’s worth, here is the responsibility chain: The coach is supposed to make sure the players know the time-out situation. The coach is supposed to get the players’ eyes when he is in doubt. According to most of the players, Steve Fisher did tell his players they were out of time-outs in their last huddle.
“But whether everyone heard it,” said Rose, “well, you know, there’s a lot goin’ on . . .”

Said Fisher, “We thought we said it, but apparently we didn’t get specific enough.”

Later, Fisher was near tears in his sorrow and his sympathy for Webber.
“It’s hard,” he whispered, when asked how he could make a player feel better after that. “I don’t know what you do . . . except try to hug him.”

Yes. And tell him that without his courage, his excellence, getting off the floor with a bad eye poke and coming back in to score a basket, stealing the ball and dribbling the length of the floor for a slam, without that, this isn’t even a close game. In fact, Michigan seemed all but finished before Webber came down with that rebound.

“When he got it, I said to myself: ‘It’s Michigan’s ballgame,’ ” Rose said later. “But you know, the whole night was unusual. It was like I looked up and there were two minutes left and I was like, where did the game go?”

Indeed, the whole game took less than two hours to play, including all the TV interruptions. The first half was a tug of war, Michigan opening tightly, then exploding for a 10-point lead, then falling back to a six-point halftime deficit.

And the second half? What can you say? It was quick and seemed like forever. At times it was so brutal, so intense, force on force, defense vs. defense, that it felt like someone trying to push a refrigerator up the stairs. Minutes would pass without a good shot. The defenses were like soggy blankets. It was less a game than a slugfest, one in which the referee just lets them go at each other, to the body, to the head, the body, the head, last one standing wins. “It was,” Fisher said afterwards, “what I expected. A game that went down to the wire.”

But the ending he didn’t expect. So many times Michigan had pulled this type of miracle off. The Wolverines don’t lose overtime games in post-season play. They don’t lose in crunch time. Isn’t that their reputation?

And when Pat Sullivan missed the second free throw with 19 seconds left, the Wolverines were perched on another great finish. How terribly sad then, that the game slipped out of Webber’s hands, even as he cradled the ball. Last year’s loss to Duke, he had said, “was the lowest moment of my life.”

You can only imagine how he feels this morning.

Joy to Carolina

And now, the morning after. The Wolverines had plenty of critics, but only a truly hard-boiled person would delight in their defeat Monday night. Like them or not, they fought the good fight this year with the enormous burden of being one half shy of a national championship last year. From the first day of practice, way back in November, they had one Monday night circled on the calendar, and it wasn’t the Oscars.

But don’t kill the season just because it ended badly. Michigan won 31 games, a school record, it beat teams it wasn’t supposed to beat and, I think I can say this safely, it provided the most entertainment in college basketball, hands down. It just didn’t win the whole thing. That joy went to Carolina, a well-schooled team with a very deliberate game plan. Yes, the Tar Heels are dull compared to Michigan, lacking in color and quotes. But they got the job done. They executed a swing-around offense when they had to, got the ball inside to Eric Montross, their 7-foot center, and got 25 points out of Donald Williams, many of them on critical three-pointers. Michigan knew it had to stop Williams to win. It didn’t.

“They seemed to get a basket whenever they had to,” Rose sighed.

Isn’t that what they usually say about Michigan?

Future isn’t important now

But OK. It’s over. It’s done. The questions will arise now about Webber and a possible pro career, and you will hear all kinds of theories, ranging from 1) “He’ll never leave now, he can’t live with that being his last college

play” to 2) “He’ll leave, because sticking around all year will be too painful.”

You know what?

It’s not important right now.

What is important is a salute to effort. The Wolverines didn’t lose this game because of trash talking, or a bad attitude. They turned the ball over too often and they had a few disastrous plays at the end. Jimmy King throwing up an air ball. Rose losing a pass inside that was stolen away. Any of those things happen in the final seconds, and we’re feeling sorry for another Wolverine instead of Webber.

The point is, you win and lose as a team. And if you can’t forget that last bungled play, then try not to forget this either: The celebration when U-M beat Kentucky on Saturday, a win that was never supposed to happen. Or the comeback from the 19-point deficit to beat UCLA, which was never supposed to happen. Remember Webber slamming and Rose making his faces and Jackson coming out of nowhere for a basket and Howard squaring for a pretty jump shot and King monster jamming that fast break Monday night. Remember seniors Rob Pelinka and James Voskuil and Eric Riley and Michael Talley in happier poses. They are still kids. It is still a game. Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes your dreams have to wait.

The Fab Five will be upperclassmen next time you see them, but that is not a curse. That, in fact, gives them hope and time, two things they simply ran out of on a very sad Monday night in April.

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