Just like the theme of this entire season, Michigan gave Oklahoma everything it had and fought until the very end on Saturday. Unfortunately, the Sooners proved to be too overpowering, as Blake Griffin dominated Michigan and helped put the Wolverines in foul trouble from almost the very start of the game. Despite having Manny Harris on the bench for most of the first half because of foul trouble, Michigan not only stayed in the game, but they only trailed by a point at the half thanks to some great play by Anthony Wright. In the second half, however, more foul trouble allowed Blake Griffin to take over and dominate Michigan. The Wolverines did make a comeback to cut the lead down to 3 at one point, but OU pulled away to win 73-63 and advance to the Sweet 16.
Coming into this game, I thought it would be very similar to the matchup against UConn back in February. Michigan had to face a great center and was at a clear disadvantage against the Huskies, and that was exactly the case on Saturday as well. Obviously Blake Griffin doesn’t have Hasheem Thabeet’s height, but he is as athletic as centers get. Griffin not only is tough to defend because of his talent, but he is also great at drawing calls and forcing teams to center in on him. That was evident on Saturday, and although the score didn’t reflect it in the first half, his play was setting up the Sooners to pull away in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Manny Harris went out of the game after picking up his second foul (he undercut Blake Griffin at the hoop) at the 15:09 mark of the first half. His absence made it look like things could get ugly pretty quickly, but Michigan surprised everyone and didn’t back down, even when DeShawn Sims left the game for a good length of time after getting hit in the eye inadvertently. His injury was only a microcosm of the physical play, as Blake Griffin had already received a cut elbow and bloody nose.
When Michigan lost its top two scorers, an unlikely hero stepped up and kept the Wolverines in this game. Anthony Wright, who began the season in the starting lineup and had seen very limited playing time since the Maryland game, made a long two-pointer and 3 three-pointers in a seven-minute or so span to put Michigan on top for a few minutes. Oklahoma regained the lead, but Wright knocked down a free throw to make it a 1-point game at halftime.
Oklahoma came out to start the second half on another level. Blake Griffin was having little trouble scoring, and Michigan couldn’t hit a shot. Manny Harris looked rusty, probably because he hadn’t played in 63 or so real time minutes. He wasn’t the only one, though. The entire team was having shooting issues, allowing Oklahoma to jump out to an 11-point lead only six minutes into the half.
Michigan managed to stop the bleeding, so to speak, and Oklahoma’s lead remained around 10 or so points until it jumped to 13 with 9:23 left in the game. Oklahoma was on the verge of running away with this game, but C.J. Lee nailed a pair of threes to lead a Michigan comeback. Anthony Wright scored on a put back layup in between Lee’s threes and then made a steal to set up a DeShawn Sims layup. Sims’ basket made this a 3-point game and left fans stunned at what had just happened. Oklahoma went from leading by 13 to leading by 3 in about three minutes, setting up what looked like it would be a dramatic finish.
Rather than lose its composure, though, the Sooners stayed calm and stopped Michigan’s run right after Sims’ layup. The key was that Oklahoma fed the ball to Blake Griffin. During Michigan’s run, the Sooners missed 3 three-pointers and turned the ball over once. Griffin didn’t take a single shot, which is mainly why OU didn’t score. After Willie Warren made a two-pointer to stop Michigan’s run, Blake Griffin got the ball on three straight possessions. Two of them ended with Griffin laying the ball in, and the other resulted in 2 points from the free throw line.
While Griffin was carrying OU to victory, Michigan was struggling to just hang on to the ball. You could see Michigan start to panic once the shots stopped falling, and generally a possession at this point in the game ended with a bad three-pointer or a turnover. To make matters worse, both C.J. Lee and Manny Harris fouled out, leaving a great leader and Michigan’s best player confined to the bench for the final few minutes of the game. This allowed Oklahoma to once again increase its lead to double figures when Austin Johnson delivered a knock out three-pointer with 1:36 left in the game. The lead was 12 after Johnson’s three-pointer, and Michigan’s hopes of a run to the Sweet 16 were over. The final score ended up being 73-63 after the final minute produced 3 made OU free throws, a Stu Douglass three, and a DeShawn Sims three-point play.
Although it was disappointing for the game to turn out how it did after Michigan made such a great run in the second half, the fact that they were so close to making it to the Sweet 16 is pretty amazing. The progress made this season shows just how great of a coach John Beilein is and how bright the future is for this program. Back in November, I never would have expected Michigan to, at one time, be leading Oklahoma in a second round NCAA tournament game. I already expressed my surprise at how well this season went in the Clemson recap, so I won’t summarize all of that again.
I do want to say how proud I am of John Beilein and all of the players, coaches, and other people involved with this program, especially C.J. Lee, David Merritt, and Jevohn Shepherd, the three seniors on this team that have played their final game for Michigan. Who could have guessed that someone like Lee, who was a walk-on at one time in his career, would play such an integral part of this team’s success and run to the second round of the NCAA tournament? The same goes for Merritt, who was also once a walk-on.
It will hurt to lose the leadership of Lee and Merritt, who were the team’s captains this season. Here’s to hoping we see them around the team in the future, preferably on the sidelines. Lee was already like a coach during games, and Merritt was like one in the locker room delivering the pre-game speeches. As for Shepherd, it seems like he has the athleticism to play basketball in the future, so maybe he could end up in the NBDL or something like that.
It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season, but I’m going to wait to do that until a later time. Right now we should look back on the best season of Michigan basketball in a very long time and be thankful for the great things this team did. It was a fun ride, and although I wish it was continuing in Memphis next weekend, a big congratulations goes out to the entire program for a job well done. Here’s to John Beilein and everyone involved with the team for a great season.