It was the proverbial Cinderella story waiting to be told. Alas, the Michigan Wolverines have been eliminated from the NCAA tournament, and it's because they shot themselves in the foot when it mattered most. I'll get back to that.
First of all, few thought UM would ever get this far to begin with. Not long ago, they were a "bubble" team. Maybe they get invited to the dance -- and maybe not. But then they stormed through the Big 10 conference tournament to win it and crash the big gala. They had earned it fair and square, though somewhat improbably.
In the opener they faced a pretty good Okla St. squad, certainly no patsies. Michigan shot the lights out -- and barely escaped with a 1 point victory. An omen? Maybe.
Next up was #2 seed Louisville. That pesky Rick Pitino and his always dangerous Redbirds. Again, Michigan came through. Two more major hurdles overcome and on to the Sweet Sixteen. Things were looking up indeed. Could destiny be on their side?
In Kansas City, facing a #3 seeded Oregon Duck team, no slouches themselves, the Wolverines were actually a very slight favorite to win the game, according to the oddsmakers.
And they had the Ducks right where they wanted them. The Blue held a 3 point lead with a little over a minute to go. True, a lot of things can happen in the last seconds of games, what with time-outs, fouls and free-throws. But being up 3 was a pretty good situation.
A Duck stepped to the free-throw line for the first of a one-and one. He missed it. Stop right there.
At that point in time, the two Michigan defenders closest to the basket during a free-throw situation had one primary duty. In case of a miss, block out and do NOT under any circumstances allow an opponent to come down the lane and grab an offensive rebound.
Yet that's exactly what they did. See a yellow flash streak through the paint, untouched, grab the miss, and lay it back in for 2 points.
A few seconds later, Michigan would cough up another turnover which led to another easy Oregon basket. That three point advantage had quickly turned into a one point deficit. They had shot themselves in the foot at the most critical time. Twice.
And that's how the game eventually ended. Oregon won by a single point.
The story that will never get told is how Michigan would then likely go up against mighty #1 seed Kansas, in their own back yard of Kansas City, with a spot in the Final Four at stake. Could UM have won that game under those circumstances? Probably not, but who knows? Maybe they could have pulled it off. Or maybe they would have gotten blown out. Neither was beyond the realm of possibility. After all, UM wasn't supposed to get this far in the first place -- right? But they did.
So now the Wolverines head back home to Ann Arbor and lament what might have been. Sure, they had a successful season by most standards, even far exceeding most expectations.
Yet you just know when they watch the film of the latter stages of the Oregon game, particularly the two flubs that wound up costing them, it's going to sting. They knew they had it, and they also know they let it get away. Ouch. The two defenders that allowed the Duck to crash the boards unimpeded on the critical missed free-throw will likely lower their heads in shame. Double ouch. They know they messed up -- big time.
Nothing to be done about it now. Over is over, Oregon moves on, and Michigan doesn't.
But yours truly likely isn't the only one that bemoans the lost opportunity of getting to see the "upstart" and "rejuvenated" Michigan "Cinderellas" take on the Jayhawks with so much at stake.
How sweet would another Final Four berth have been for a program that has suffered through hard times and finally fought its way back to respectability? And then, who knows again? If they could beat the likes of 1,2, and 3 seeds along the way, could an outright championship have -- gasp -- been within their capability? Sure. Why not? Stranger things have happened.
It's going to be a long flight for the Maize and Blue, and an even longer day in the film room when they get there. That is a recording they most definitely don't want to watch, break down, and analyze.
They already know EXACTLY how they blew it.