BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Suddenly, a game they had played so beautifully, so masterfully, for 33 solid minutes, was melting like hot wax, and they were all melting with it. Ray Jackson, whose shake-loose drives had resulted in basket after basket, was now called for his fifth foul, and he marched to the bench and lowered his head. Jimmy King, who earlier had sunk back-to- back three-pointers, so easily, it was like dropping pennies in a bank — now clanked one off the rim. Jalen Rose came racing on a fast break, his specialty, showtime, but instead the whistle blew and he was called for charging, his fifth foul, he took a seat, good-bye. Chris Webber, no doubt feeling like the last of the Mohicans, suddenly went cold, too. He missed an inside shot, made a bad pass, and watched Indiana run away with it all, the ball, the bragging rights, the whole damn thing.
“I am so sick of losing to these guys,” senior guard Rob Pelinka said after Indiana fell behind, passed, then held back Michigan for another one-point win, 93-92, Sunday. “I’ve been coming here for five years and I’ve never won. This place. This team.”
This rivalry. Forget Duke. Indiana has the bull’s-eye on its jersey. Indiana is the target in the postseason. Michigan, in my mind, is the better team, the more talented team, the faster team, the stronger team — yet the Wolverines have lost twice to the Hoosiers in gut-twisting fashion, and dreams of a Big Ten title most likely will have to wait until next year.
“Two games, two points,” Webber moaned afterward. “Two games, two points.”
Yes. But although the margins were the same, the rest was not. Alan Henderson had the game of his life when the two teams met last month; this time Henderson was not a factor.
This time, the killer was a crew-cutted, redshirt freshman with a slightly startled look and the physique of a tall shoe salesman. Brian Evans? Brian Evans was the star of this game?
“He did everything you could want,” teammate Calbert Cheaney said of Evans, a sub who was averaging less than five points a game but Sunday scored 17. “He rebounded, he shot, he passed, he did everything.”
Well. If not everything, enough. His arrival in the game coincided with a terrible drought for Michigan, during which the Wolverines would go nearly seven minutes without a basket and lose the rebounding battle the way George Bush lost the presidency. And, as the Wolverines watched the ball go off the rim or their hands, it was Evans who hit a three-pointer from the corner that gave Indiana its first lead (5:48 left). And it was Evans who stole the ball when Rose made a bad-decision pass (5:11 left). And it was Evans who hit another three- pointer from the corner for a six-point lead (4:07 left).
And it was Evans, fittingly, at the free-throw line (with :02 left), hitting the shot that would prove to be the margin of victory.
Brian Evans? A great first half for U-M
Well, isn’t it always something against this team? Like Duke last year, the Hoosiers seem to have a bag of tricks that has no bottom, and thus a mastery of Michigan as of late; in fact, the Wolverines have beaten them just once in the last six tries. But before you launch into talk about how “smart” Indiana is, or how “disciplined” or how “organized” — all meant to suggest that Michigan plays with no poise or too much razzle-dazzle, consider:
* The first half was some of the best basketball I have ever seen Michigan play. The Wolverines shot 60 percent from the floor. They played intense, tight defense, and yes, “disciplined” offense. They worked the ball around so unselfishly, that the shots-attempted line for the starters read 6,5,5,5,5.
* That first half also featured some of the worst officiating since, well, since last Tuesday, when the referees handed these same Hoosiers a win they never should have had at Penn State. On Sunday, there were calls on Jackson (a touch), Juwan Howard (another touch) and Webber (a clean block) that even Hoosiers’ fans might have thought a little generous. Last year in this arena, Indiana shot 50 free throws; Michigan shot less than half that. Sunday, Indiana shot 38 free throws, Michigan only 23. Any pattern here?
* As a result of those fouls early, the Wolverines were forced to play the final five minutes without Jackson and the final two minutes without Rose, their floor general. And they still lost by a point.
“I thought for the first half and 13 minutes of the second half, we played pretty well,” coach Steve Fisher said, digging his hands into his pockets in the hallway. “But we hit that stretch of seven minutes . . . well, we haven’t had a stretch that bad in a long time.”
He shook his head and pulled his hands free of the pockets.
Empty again. A history lesson?
In the final seconds Sunday, Webber took a desperation shot from the top of the key, leaning into something or somebody, trying to draw a foul and make a four-point play. He shot, the ball swished, but no one fouled him. Webber had just done something amazing, especially for a big man. He had just made three 3-point baskets in less than a minute. But he looked up, saw the scoreboard, dropped to his knees and buried his head.
In some ways, this is symbolic of the Wolverines to date. They do amazing things, but in the games they want the most, the most, the most, they come up just short. Last year’s championship. The rematch at Duke. The first Indiana game. This Indiana game.
It is getting to the point where only a national championship will suffice for these players, where only cutting down the nets in some huge stadium in April will take away all the near misses they have endured.
“Did you stop thinking about the Big Ten title when the buzzer sounded today?” someone asked Webber.
“I stopped thinking about the Big Ten after (Indiana’s) Penn State game the other night,” he said.
“Does it seem like it’s always something with the Hoosiers?” Rose was asked.
“Well, the way I see it,” he said, “they can win the Big Ten. That’s like the silver medal. We’re going for the gold now with the national championship.”
But although history is often useless in sports, one game is worth remembering from last season, one game the Wolverines might want to call up from the files and keep around somewhere handy: Last year, Michigan lost to Ohio State twice in the regular season and Ohio State went on to win the conference. But when the two teams met in the NCAA tournament, for the right to go to the Final Four, and everyone said, “No way, Ohio State has Michigan’s number” — Michigan got its revenge. A victory. In overtime.
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