MINNEAPOLIS — As the seconds ticked away on their fabulous lives as freshmen, the expressions were suddenly different. The eyes were dazed. The mouths hung open. Chris Webber watched Duke’s Antonio Lang slam down an uncontested dunk; Webber turned up court with a weary look. Jalen Rose watched Grant Hill hang on the rim after another slam; Rose clenched his jaw in disgust. This was not right. This was all wrong. The Wolverines suddenly were a team full of genies corked and stuck inside the bottle. Only when the buzzer sounded were they free to do their magic, but by that point, it was too late. The Duke players were the ones leaping and hugging and living out the dream. The Wolverines sat on the bench with their heads in their hands and covered their teary eyes with towels.
End of chapter.
The story continues.
This was no funeral, this 71-51 title-game loss to the defending champions of college basketball, the Duke Blue Devils, who showed the world in the second half how to get the most from an exhausted yet intelligent bunch of players. Oh, it might have looked bad, especially those last few minutes, when Duke left the Wolverines in the dust. But a death knell? Not for Michigan. Hey. Come on. They’re kids. They’re 19 years old. They made it to within one victory of a national championship. You gonna bury them over that?
“When I was sitting on the bench in that final minute, I thought people were gonna misconstrue this,” Webber said, fighting back tears in the locker room. “They’ll say we lost because we were kids, we couldn’t handle the pressure. That’s not it at all.
“We lost because Duke was a better team tonight.”
Exactly. Hey. There are a lot of teams in America that sigh after they play Duke. Here was a Blue Devil team that was playing beneath itself, turning the ball over, not hustling. Even its star players were missing shots and drawing fouls. And yet, there is a reason the Blue Devils have been to the championship game three years in a row and won the last two. They come back. They play smart. They turned up the defense on Michigan, and suddenly, getting a shot was as hard as finding a good candidate in the presidential campaign.
Michigan stumbled. Michigan fell. And Duke climbed the ladder to cut down the nets.
But before you place Duke in another league, remember that three years ago, when Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were just getting started, Duke lost to UNLV in the final by 30 points.
Under that standard, Michigan is ahead of the game.
“We’ll be back,” Juwan Howard promised from his seat in the Wolverines’ locker room. “We got three more of these to go.”
End of chapter.
The story continues. Making news from the start
“I want to congratulate Michigan for what they’ve done with such a young team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward. And if there was no fear in his voice at the possibility of a rematch, well, there ought to be.
Bad finish aside, this will always be a great tale for the Wolverines. Were it a movie, you would have been mesmerized from the opening credits. Jimmy King, a leaping gnome from Texas, the most sought-after player in his high school. Rose, a slinky fireball of confidence, the most sought-after player in his high school. Howard, a dominating big man with an uncanny soft shot, the most sought-after player in his high school. Ray Jackson, a bundle of offense and defensive pressure, the most sought-after player in his high school. Webber, the prototype big forward, muscled beyond his years, agile beyond his frame, the most sought-after player in the country.
All five? At the same school? Let’s face it. This was a team that made news on move-in day. From the time that Fisher unhooked the bridles and let all five of them start — Feb. 9, 1992, mark that on your sports calendars — they became more than kids tossing around a basketball; they became an event. A thing. A moving, jelling, growing, laughing, learning, twirling, rebounding, shooting, boasting, toasting, dunking, ker-plunking single unit of basketball talent. Oh, they made mistakes, they lost games, but the defeats always seemed more accident than inability.
The early-season loss to Duke was followed by five straight wins. A blown game to Ohio State was avenged by a big win over Indiana. All the time, they were learning to play together, building their machine, fitting the screws and attaching the pipes, until, by tournament time, they were on line and running. Five freshmen starters. Beating Temple. Beating East Tennessee State. Beating Oklahoma State — once ranked No. 2 in the nation — and beating Ohio State, everyone’s favorite selection from the Big Ten. Then coming here. Beating Cincinnati. Going to Monday Night in Minneapolis, against the defending national champions.
“We’re the No. 2 team in the country, I guess,” Webber said in the locker room. “That’s higher than we’ve been ranked all year, right?” It wasn’t pretty
Right. It was no fun to watch the closing scenes of this championship, the sad Wolverines staring at the Blue Devils’ celebration, or Webber telling cameramen to “get out of my face” in the tunnel, or Rose putting his arms around Webber as they rode to their final press conference of the tournament, holding their heads together, crying, or Howard telling reporters that he felt
“so drowsy out there,” due the cold he’s been fighting.
In fact, from a pure basketball point of view, this game was not much to watch, either. It was more a slugfest than a dunk-a-thon, more marked by fouls than baskets, more dotted with turnovers than assists. The Blue Devils won because they turned 49 percent shooting by Michigan in the first half into 29 percent shooting in the second. They won because they out- rebounded Michigan. And they won because of Grant Hill, son of former football star Calvin Hill, who started in place of the injured Brian Davis and with 18 points is the biggest reason Duke wears the crown this morning. Laettner and Bobby Hurley were sub-par by any standards.
But as a team, Duke was good enough. And so these were the pictures Michigan was left to ponder: Rose, limited by foul trouble, scoring just 11 points and winding up on his back in the lane, as the final seconds ticked down, no foul, no help, no mercy; Ray Jackson, who didn’t play well — or even many minutes — in the last two games of his freshman year, flicking a towel in disgust; Jimmy King shooting 3-for-7; Howard grabbing only three rebounds.
“We just unraveled in that second half,” coach Steve Fisher said. “I don’t know if it was nerves, or youth, or a little of both. I think mostly it was Duke. . . .
“You know, you see the look of disappointment on the kids’ faces as that horn sounds, and you see how happy the Duke kids are, and you realize what a roller-coaster business we are in.”
And so it ended. On the down side.
Now. There will be those who say it is better this way. Too much success too soon can drown a program. Maybe they are right. You won’t get Michigan to admit it. “The memory I’ll take from this season?” Webber said, gritting his teeth. “This loss. I will never forget it.”
OK. But to let the season end in sadness, to put on maize- and-blue sackcloth this morning, that would simply be foolish. Remember, this was the championship game. What was Michigan doing here at all?
No. Better to remember these Wolverines in happier poses: Webber, throughout this tournament, slamming dunks that were matched in ferocity only by the expressions on his face. Or Rose, slicing through the lane like a rabbit slices through hedges, tossing up a soft shot that contradicts his speed, yet curls in anyhow. Or Howard, posting up, turning and banking, the classic big man move. Or Jimmy King, flicking the “jump” switch and soaring to the middle of the backboard for a dunk.
Or James Voskuil and Eric Riley, coming to the rescue with big games. Or Fisher, sipping water on the sidelines, staying calm with all this youthful mayhem.
Better to remember them on Sunday, when they sat before the nation’s media, laughing, joking, walking around a hotel lobby with people trailing behind them as if it were the most natural thing on Earth. It wasn’t stardom that threw them Monday night. It wasn’t pressure. It wasn’t youth. It was simply a team that, on this night, was better. No failure. When you dream, you can never fail. You just dream again.
End of chapter. The story continues. Get yourself a candle and a comfortable chair; this will be a good read before it’s over.