Throughout this tournament run, I wrote incessantly about incredulity, disbelief, an inability to take in all these stimuli and transform them into something capable of being understood. For a few weeks, we all stood with one foot on each side of the line of demarcation between reality and Something Else; not unreality, rather, but an unexpected other, an unlikely iteration, an alternate dimension coming in to take this one's place like a substitute point guard.
Last night was no different, of course. Michigan jumped out to a 5-0 lead, provided entirely by Trey Burke, who in 68 seconds had already hit more field goals then he did on Saturday night. As ridiculous as it may seem, each bucket whittled away at the carapace of disbelief, even from the start. Each bucket was one step taken toward the end, the literal end, when there would be no hypotheticals because the end is the end.
Burke picked up a second foul nine minutes in and sat. The rest of the first frame featured occasional looks to the bench, where Burke sat, quietly, stewing. As much as I hate to even reference this movie, it was kind of like the scene in The Phantom Menace when Obi Wan was stuck behind the energy barrier as Qui-Gon took on Darth Maul alone. Burke's facial expression was helplessness, encapsulated. If there is anything that approaches the feelings one has after a loss, it's this, the knowledge that you can't do anything at this time. You are a spectator. For about 10 minutes of play, we were Trey Burke. Watching, analyzing, calculating magic numbers and biting our nails and grimacing.
Spike Albrecht flew in from this other dimension, some other Spike Albrecht from another world in which the cylinder is as wide as Lake Michigan. Before Burke took to the bench, Albrecht hit one, two, three treys, living out an out-of-body experience on a national stage in front of millions of people. The orange orb went up each time, aflame, singing the tips of the net with its furious trajectory.
Burke sat, but Albrecht was not done: he scored eight more points before the half was over, finishing the first frame with 17 points. Albrecht was averaging 1.8 points per game coming into last night, and had not scored more than seven points in a game all season. The dream world continued to impinge upon on our own, so that nothing was obvious except how we felt about these things that were happening.
Other Luke Hancock joined the fray from the Other World too, hitting four straight threes at the end of the half. In less than two minutes of play, Michigan's once 12-point lead was ground into dust as if it never was. Was Michigan leading by 12 with 3:55 to go in the half? The box score says yes, but things have been known to lie.
A pair of Glenn Robinson III free throws sent Michigan into the half with a tenuous one-point lead. Everything hung precariously on the edge, overlooking a Grand Canyon of possibility: beautiful, yes, but there was a fall to ponder.
Early in the second, Burke returned to hit a three and a Mitch McGary layup gave Michigan a four-point lead, with 17 minutes until the end. Michigan had unloaded its reserves of improbable other-worldly magic in the first half, while Louisville quickly countered with its own. Foul trouble would not be a real issue until much later. The second frame would be a simple litmus test: red or blue, acidic or basic, Michigan or Louisville.
Chane Behanan went to work for the Cards, scoring 11 of his 15 points in the second half. As has been the case for much of the season, Michigan didn't have an answer on the low block, and the Wolverines' rebounding struggles emerged from the hermetically sealed box in which they had been imprisoned like an evil spirit. Louisville finished the game with 15 offensive rebounds, grabbing 45% of its misses on the evening; without looking, I'm guessing this far surpasses anything any prior Michigan tournament opponent was able to put up. McGary picked up his fourth foul with 9:11 to go in the game: Louisville grabbed eight offensive boards from this point until the game's conclusion.
Michigan spent the rest of the game (before the very, very end) down from anywhere between one and five points or so, and yet it always seemed just out reach. Peyton Siva stared down Trey Burke after executing an alley-oop slam, and Burke responded with an alley-oop assist to none other than Glenn Robinson III, cutting the lead to 67-64 with six minutes to go. Ordinarily, I would've jumped out of my seat --ohhhhhhh-- but I sat, entrenched, an unmoving statue, an eternal Polaroid.
I will refrain from talking about the officiating in this game, which was unfortunately lacking going both ways, marring what was otherwise a superb display of basketball (capping a season that many pundits infuriatingly deemed a poor season of college basketball; that is a discussion for another day). However, shortly after the aforementioned GRIII slam, Burke executed a perfect all ball block of Siva at the rim: we know how that ended. At this point, Michigan was down three.
After Siva hit both of his free throws and Gorgui Dieng hit a dagger of a jumper, the Wolverines were down seven, their largest deficit of the game thus far. The bells started to toll, each ringing akin to the "kick" from Inception, startling us all back from this dreamy alternate world back to reality. With 4:49 to go, Michigan was down 71-64.
Through it all, Burke refused to go quietly into the night, throwing himself at the rim over and over again without regard for his safety or the size of the men wishing to send him away. We have seen this before, only the stakes weren't so high. Burke fell to the floor, collapsed in painful repose for several seconds longer than we had seen in some time. Burke grimaced, I grimaced. The floor was reality. In the Other World, the floor is soft and forgiving, and Spike Albrecht threes fall from the sky like a cool rain.
Down eight with under three minutes to go, Louisville reeled in three offensive rebounds on the same possession. They did not score, but it was a brief snapshot of something Michigan was not able to do down the stretch that they had done superbly throughout the rest of the tournament.
With Michigan in the double bonus, Burke and Robinson III converted on their ensuing respective trips to the line, cutting the lead to four with 1:20 to go. For a moment, hope flickered faintly like a lighthouse across the bay. Michigan got the stop it needed, but Caris LeVert came down with the rebound with his foot on the end line, an excruciating turn of events. Who knows what would have happened had his foot landed inbounds, but that outcome is likely stored away in some Other World, where outcomes not chosen in this great lottery lie dormant.
Michigan spent the next 20 seconds or so in confusion, not fouling despite desperately needing to do so. Nonetheless, it was a minor point in a game full of grand occurrences. Luke Hancock and Peyton Siva both went 2-for-2 in their ensuing trips to the line.
Burke missed a three that would ordinarily be deemed a prayer for any other shooter not named Trey Burke; regardless, it was too late anyhow. The clock read zeroes and the confetti fell, upon the winning team and the losing team alike.
Without the appropriate period of time to take this all in, to sift out the wondrous ethereal from the cold, metallic truths, it is probably unwise to talk about the Big Picture at this juncture, let alone the future. Time is needed to let things simmer, and whatever emotional precipitate arises, arises. That day will come soon, but that day is not this day.
For now, I can only speak to the immense joy this team has brought me (and hopefully all of you), throughout this season. It was a season not without its trials, and yet can any of us say that it did not bring us more moments of sheer, riotous joy than every other season in recent years combined? Can any of us say that this season did not, in fact, stretch our understanding of what is possible, of what can be done with a 14-point deficit and 6:51 left on the clock? Of what can be done with a Canadian three-point shooter with fire and naivete in his veins? Of a backup point guard named Spike averaging 1.8 points per game? Of a six foot ten inch freshman who, in the span of a few weeks, metamorphoses into a world-destroying force of nature?
When asked about the bright future of this team, McGary responded:
"I mean, I don't know...it's probably not, it's probably not the right moment to ask that question."
He probably doesn't understand just how right he is.