MICHIGAN’S UNLIKELY REIGN ENDS, BUT WHAT A REIGN IT WAS

LONG BEACH, Calif. — The dream was out of breath, it was gasping for air, all the magic the Michigan Wolverines had once enjoyed in climbing to the national championship now seemed to be stacked against them in another color uniform. Who were these Loyola Marymount Lions, and how on earth did you stop them? One by one, the U-M seniors stepped forward to fight the sword, and one by one they fell. Here was Mike Griffin, fouling out meekly as a tank named Bo Kimble raced past him for a slam. Here was Loy Vaught soaring for a rebound, but falling as he came down, losing the ball, watching from the floor as Loyola Marymount stuffed it. Here was Rumeal Robinson, the co- captain, last year’s miracle worker, flying down the lane for a slam — he was a foot over the rim! — but the referee called “CHARGING!” no basket, as the sold-out partisan crowd roared with delight.

There goes the crown. It was fun while they wore it, and they did it proud, but somebody else will have it when this crazy tournament is over. The Wolverines, former national champions, ran into a basketball hailstorm Sunday afternoon, and you have to wonder whether anything human could have withstood it.

“I’ve never seen a team like that,” said Vaught, shaking his head, after Marymount exploded for a record-setting 149-115 victory that sent U-M home for the season in the second round of the NCAA tournament. “They could have beaten the Pistons tonight.”

Hey. They might have given God a run for his money. The Lions scored enough points for two games. Check that. Two blowouts. One hundred and forty-nine? More than any other team in tournament history? More than any other Michigan opponent since the school was built? True, they are a group playing on a mission, the honor of center Hank Gathers, who died on the court in their last game before the NCAA tournament. But even divine inspiration couldn’t explain the rainbow baskets that fell from the sky and lit up the scoreboard.

“They shot NBA three-pointers tonight,” lamented Steve Fisher, the Michigan coach who had finally lost in postseason play. “They made them with men on them, and with no men on them.”

From Earth, from Mars, from Pluto. Until, finally, the Wolverines, who had always felt that when glory was on the line they could outrun anybody, had no choice but to walk off the court for the last time this season.

There goes the crown.

Is it as sad a moment as you thought it might be?” someone asked Robinson, who has officially finished his glorious career as a Wolverine.

“It’s not sad,” he said, buttoning his shirt. “What would have been sad is if we didn’t give it our all. But we did.”

And then some. This was breakneck basketball; you could break your neck playing, you could break your neck watching. The nets should have been metal, the backboards wood, the players should have been bare-chested with baggy shorts and untied sneakers on a hot summer night. Quick. Look. Marymount’s Jeff Fryer bombs away from the corner — good! Quick, the other end, Vaught on a blind pass from Robinson — slam! Quick, the other end, Kimble lays it in for two. Quick, the other end, Sean Higgins buries a jumper. That’s the way it went, all day, a breathless, trash-talking affair, sweat-flying, ball-zipping, when the shot missed it was downcourt in a blur, when the shot swished, it was downcourt before it even came out of the net.

It was exhausting, exhilarating, it was great fun for the impartial fan. The problem for Michigan is that Loyola Marymount plays this way all the time. The Lions own the run- and-press game in college basketball the way Disneyland owns Mickey Mouse; it is their trademark, their calling card. Playing Marymount in that fashion is like trying to trip a spider.

“We said before the game, we couldn’t run with them for 40 minutes,” Fisher said. “But when they press, they make you push it up. They show you a lot of open shots and they’re tempting. Sometimes you’re so open you say, ‘I gotta take this shot.’ “

Indeed, the Lions are like a class bully who keeps poking your shoulder,
“Wanna fight? Wanna fight? Come on, are you chicken?” You know you shouldn’t, but then, suddenly, you do. The Wolverines have their pride. And, in truth, they can play the running game with almost anybody. The problem Sunday was that even the Michigan swishes were only half as good as Marymount’s. More than 40 percent of Marymount’s baskets were three-pointers. How many did Fryer alone make? Eleven? He finished with 41 points? Despite the blowout on the scoreboard, U-M actually made just four fewer baskets than its unbelievable opponents (45-49). The problem was, most of those were the old-fashioned kind. Remember? Two-pointers?

“Hey, when they have guys who never took a three-pointer come in off the bench at the end of the game and make them,” said Terry Mills, “you just know everything’s going their way.”

Remember that sentence? That’s what they were saying about Michigan last year, when the loss of coach Bill Frieder seemed to spark the Wolverines to a new level, a heartfelt determination to prove they were not helpless orphans abandoned in the night. Perhaps it is poetic justice that U-M bows to a team that is also playing for more than just hoops and hysteria. The Gathers dedication is a noble one, and, so far, damn powerful.

“We are gonna make some noise, I mean it,” said Kimble, who was Gathers’ closest friend, and who shot his first free throw of the day left-handed — he made it — in honor of his departed buddy. Kimble finished with 37 points.

“We are,” Fryer added, “an emotional hurricane right now. Nothing can stand in our way.”

Michigan will attest to that. Oh, there will be critics who say the coaching should have kept U-M from the folly of matching Marymount’s race pace. And there may be some truth there. But remember, U-M had one day to prepare for this team. And, at closer look, it may not have been pace that did the damage. “It’s not that they were going so fast,” Robinson said. “They were just shooting so unbelievably!”

Whatever. The season is over. For those who wave the maize- and-blue, this marks the end of a wonderful run, a dance in the throne room that nobody expected. Seniors such as Robinson, Mills, Vaught and Griffin should be honored this morning, for leading this team with class and dignity, and — in the case of Mills and Robinson — for enduring more than a fair share of abuse over academics, proving to the critics that kids given a chance can become men you admire. It was fitting that that pair led U-M with 23 points apiece Sunday, and that Vaught, who has found a home in the air, led all players with 17 rebounds.

“What did you say to each other when you came out of the game?” Robinson was asked.

He forced a small smile. “We said good try, good career, good playing with you.”

Good things. There will be time to lament this defeat; it will come back in more jump cuts than an MTV video. And there will be time to contemplate next season’s Michigan team, which will be markedly younger and far more inexperienced.

But, for now, a salute to a group that endured the burden of defending the title, the glare of the spotlight, the sting of criticism, and never once lashed out. If its 1990 season and championship run must be remembered in a single sentence, then make it something like this: They rose like a hurricane, and, finally, they lost to one.

At the end of the game, as the players left the court, several Michigan and Loyola Marymount students ran out with their school flags and planted them, the way explorers do when they claim new ground. Here stood a national champion. There goes the crown. No shame in that. None whatsoever.

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