by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEATTLE — The older guys had seen this before, a Michigan dream snuffed out by the sky-blue of North Carolina. Gary Grant, sitting on the bench for the final ticks of his college career, had seen it before. Glen Rice, tossing up a desperation three- pointer that clanked away, had seen it before. Bill Frieder, the coach who had taken this Wolverine team further than any other in his career, now pulling on the yellow towel around his neck, helpless to do anything but watch, had seen it before.

There she goes. In the end there was less time than basketball for these Wolverines, who said goodby to the college season with a 78-69 loss to the Tar Heels in the third round of the NCAA tournament here Friday night.

“What was the difference between this year and last?” someone asked Grant, the senior guard, who scored only seven points and fouled out in this, his final game as a Wolverine.

“This year we should have won,” he said, shaking his head. “And if I had played a Gary Grant-like game, I think we would have won.”

Perhaps they would have. Unlike last year’s second-round defeat by North Carolina, this was an always-close affair, agonizingly so — a frantic crawl, if you will — because North Carolina played slow it up, and Michigan spent much of its time chasing the Tar Heels down. It was see-saw for a long time, and even into the final two minutes there was maize-and-blue hope. And then a bounce here, a tip there, a call on a deliberate foul that was not made, a free-throw miss that North Carolina’s J.R. Reid grabbed and banked in.

Little things. They add up.

There she goes.

“We tried everything,” said Frieder, his eyes bleary, his face red from the flu, “trapping, fouling early, three-point shots. We made runs, but we couldn’t get over the hump. No excuses. We have no excuses.”

To his right sat Grant, his favorite player, the All-American who calls the coach “a friend.” Doesn’t matter who you rooted for. The guy deserved a better finish than this.

“Is it disappointing going out this way in your last game?” someone asked Grant.

“Sure it is,” he said. “I feel bad. I know I can play better than that.”

He sighed.

“I wish we could play tomorrow.” Doesn’t everybody? At least everyone rooting for the Wolverines? Sure, Michigan has seen previous seasons end before the pot of gold. In fact, that has been the rap on Frieder’s program for years. But lest anyone confuse this team with teams past, consider the game that took place Friday night. There was no intimidation here. No sense of being overwhelmed by North Carolina, a team that seems to reach the end of the NCAA rainbow on a regular basis.

For most of the night, Michigan matched the Tar Heels blow for blow, stifling their war machine, J.R. Reid, and forcing them into an offense of endless passes in search of an decent shot.

Michigan, a team seemingly born to run, was grinding it out and staying even with one of the best teams in the nation. In the first half, Reid didn’t turn anywhere without two hands in his face. And while Grant was struggling for the Wolverines, Rumeal Robinson was shining. He scored 15 points in the first half alone, on shots you wouldn’t want to try at home. The buzzer sounded with the score North Carolina 31, Michigan 30.

The game belonged to anybody.

“Do you feel you could beat these guys on another night?” someone later asked Robinson, who finished with 29 points, a glorious night under any other circumstance.

“I do,” he said softly, looking at his feet, “but other nights don’t count now.”

No, they don’t. The Tar Heels came out stronger in the second half (they shot 32 percent the first half, 71 percent for the second). Their defense was a drum. And with Grant in foul trouble, and Mark Hughes and Loy Vaught using fouls to stop Reid, the Wolverines could not get aggressive. The game crunched to a war of attrition, and U-M was shy of gunpowder. “They’re deep,” said Frieder, of North Carolina. “Glen Rice played 39 minutes for us, which is seven or eight more than anyone on their team. We don’t have the depth they do.”

So in the end, when Scott Williams took a Reid feed and slam-dunked it as the buzzer sounded, all the U-M guys could do was watch. Some of them. Grant and Frieder were already heading toward the lockers.

They had seen this before. And so the year ends for these Wolverines, a remarkable year really, considering how it began, in Alaska, when freshman Sean Higgins (later declared academically ineligible) was an integral part of the lineup. They shouldered a burdensome combination of youth (Terry Mills and Robinson, both starters, both in their first seasons) and expectations (Dick Vitale picking them No. 1 to start the year). They reached a level no Frieder-coached team has reached, third round of the tournament, and there were times when you swore that no team in the nation could beat them. That’s how strong they looked with all cylinders clicking.

So you couldn’t watch this loss Friday and not feel something. Wouldn’t it be nice if Michigan was the team that did the upsetting for once, that got suddenly hot and cruised to the Final Four? And poor Grant. This was not what he imagined when he stayed awake all night, dreaming of this rematch, not what he imagined when he dressed in Seattle Seahawk Brian Bosworth’s locker Friday night, intentionally, so he could be “mean and ready.”

“I feel bad for my teammates, and real bad for coach Frieder,” he said. “I wanted to have the best game of my career tonight and see us get to the Final Four.”

He shrugged. Around him, his teammates were sitting by strange lockers, slowly undressing. Most will be back next year. This is a lesson they should take home with them: All but one team finishes this tournament less than satisfied. But you play basketball for a season, not one game, and the season, 26-8, was outstanding.

“I just wish we could still play tomorrow,” Grant said again, but the tomorrows were all used up. CUTLINE Michigan band member Dean Gorsuch sits dejectedly after Michigan lost to North Carolina.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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