March 16, 2012

Borton's Blog: The bitter end

Shock. Anger. Tears. All flowed freely in the Michigan locker room, after the Wolverines left that Dance before getting warmed up. Seniors Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, most of all, weren't ready to let go.

But they had to. The seconds they desperately wanted back would never return. The shots they ached to reel back in and re-fire would remain forever misses in the books.

Ohio - the MAC's Bobcats, not the Big Ten's Buckeyes - would survive and advance. The Wolverines? They'd look at each other, wonder what the heck just happened, try to come to grips with becoming a March Madness statistic, and slowly pack their bags.

The team that over-achieved so brilliantly during the regular season - Big Ten champs, remember - hit a sort of Twilight Zone when it came to the postseason. They lost twice in the span of a week, both to Ohio, the only time they'd strung back-to-back losses all year.

It was one too many. In March, they don't give second chances.

"I'm trying to censor how I'm feeling," Novak offered, carefully considering his words. "I don't even know how to describe it. We left some opportunities out there tonight. That makes it sting a little bit more. We really thought we had a team to make a run this year, and I still think…

"Any other night, you know? It could happen. But that's why March is crazy. Duke lost to Lehigh. That's why people enjoy this."

Nobody was enjoying anything inside Michigan's inner sanctum. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan spoke through his tears, using a towel to wipe them away between answers. Sophomore Evan Smotrycz - whose turnover in the closing seconds preempted a buzzer-beating attempt - appeared almost inconsolable.

He spoke, with great effort. But with his voice choked by emotion, he looked as if he wanted to be teleported to the moon, to contemplate his thoughts in silence.

"I thought we had a good year, but I just feel bad for our seniors," Smotrycz said, haltingly, his eyes drenched and reddened. "I didn't want to let them go out like this."

Douglass refused to believe they were going out like this. He almost convinced himself that the clock was lying, that time wasn't really running out in this game, in his Michigan career.

Michigan had won so many close games this season. Surely this wouldn't be different. Surely time would stand still long enough to allow the careers of Novak and Douglass to go into overtime.

"That's what you had to keep telling yourself, especially as emotionally driven as Zack and I were, not wanting it to end," Douglass said. "We had to keep telling ourselves that. I looked up when Evan turned it over, and there were six seconds left.

"I thought there was more time. Maybe I was just telling myself that, that we had more chances."

They didn't. It ended, 65-60, in a flurry of missed threes, following a game of missed opportunities. A team that took its fans on a magic carpet ride during the season had the rug pulled out from under it by a MAC team with a talented point guard and a belief that on any given day…

"This is March Madness at its best, where on any given day, any team can have success if they're better on that given day," U-M assistant coach Bacari Alexander offered. "Today, I think you saw that. It's been going on today around the country - Lehigh beating Duke."

But not this day. Not in this venue. Not to these seniors.

Yes, to all of the above.

Novak and Douglass got their rings, but not their run. It's a hard reality, but one they both met head-on in the moments following a stunner of a one-and-done.

"It's shock," Douglass admitted. "Still can't believe what happened. We played a great team, but in our minds, in my mind, the way it played out over and over again in my head, it wasn't supposed to happen like this. It's going to be a hard thing to face for a few days."

The ending may never sit well. But the journey, eventually, will feel a whole lot better than this forced self-appraisal amid deep pain in the bowels of Bridgestone Arena.

Novak and Douglass both acknowledged a pride in where the Wolverines have been - three NCAA Tournaments in four years, and the Big Ten mountaintop this season - and where they're headed.

"My dad has always taught me, 'Leave it better than you found it,'" Douglass said. "I think we've done that. That's a little consolation right now, but it's hard to think about next year's team playing. I feel like I should be there, doing something, but I'm not. It's a reality I'm going to have to face here soon enough."

"At the end of the day, you look at what this team accomplished from where we started," Novak assessed. "A year ago, Darius [Morris] left, and everyone said we were screwed. We proved a lot of people wrong, and we won the best conference in the country…

"We've set a standard. We've built a foundation. I think that was evident this year. We can bring in a freshman point guard and he ends up as an All-American. As talented as Trey [Burke] is, you bring him into a bad situation, those things just don't happen.

"The foundation is set in place. It's up to them to keep it going, and carry on what we started."

Amid bitter tears, Morgan vowed to do exactly that. Asked what he'd say to the senior captains, he quietly noted: "Thank you for what you've done for the program - not just for this team, for the whole program."

The introspective engineering student couldn't devise in his head a formula to reconcile what had just happened. The successes of the season were no comfort at all, not when handed, prematurely, a one-way ticket home.

"It's hard," he said, toweling away the tears. "It doesn't really matter. None of that really matters anymore."

Morgan even noted that Michigan had become a fashionable pick to fall victim to the big upset, given its uneven play in the closing weeks of the season.

"It's funny," he said, his voice sounding anything but amused. "You hear everybody tell you you're supposed to lose, and you do it -- it sucks. We pride ourselves on proving everybody wrong, and this time, everybody was right."

Morgan then turned a little defiant, promising to prove doubters wrong next season.

"That's all I'm thinking about," he said. "That's all I'm thinking about right now. It's not going to be the same. It's not going to happen like this again.

"I know me and the leaders we've still got on this team, we're not going to let it happen again. We've worked too hard. We've worked way too hard in the offseason, way too hard in practice. We start back up again in these workouts, and it's not going to happen like this again."

It will never be exactly like this again. Novak and Douglass will give way to others, who get to weave their own story. But nobody figured the last chapter of this one to be written in Michigan's first NCAA Tournament game.

It's … almost madness.

"It's very hard," Burke said. "It's still shocking. It's unfortunate we had to end our season the way we ended it, this early. It's definitely a stinger. There's nothing we can do about it. It's life."

And life goes on, like it or not.

Nobody needs to feel sorry for either of the two Michigan captains, in the big picture. They'll go on to play basketball overseas. They'll have degrees to fall back on. They'll always bring a smile to those thinking about Michigan emerging from a decade in NCAA darkness.

But right now, in this moment, it just felt all wrong.

"It's difficult, because they've been the heart and soul of this team for four years through so many good times and certainly some low roads at times, but you hate to see that," U-M coach John Beilein said.

"We've been a unique group," Novak acknowledged. "When we came in, the program wasn't in a good place. We always put the program ahead of ourselves. Whatever these guys do for the next couple of years, we might not be on the court, but we're going to feel like we're right there with them.

"The losses next year are going to hurt us, still. When they win, we're going to be jumping up and down, going crazy. It's just a special group. That's why it makes it so hard. I love these guys."

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