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Poor offensive execution dooms Michigan in Elite Eight loss

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The Wolverines missed their final eight shots against UCLA.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-UCLA vs Michigan Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

As the clock wound down during Tuesday’s Elite Eight matchup against UCLA, the game was there for the Michigan Wolverines’ taking.

After erasing a nine-point second-half deficit, it was a one-possession game for the final eight minutes. A Chaundee Brown 3-pointer tied the score with 5:22 remaining, giving Michigan all the momentum with plenty of clock left.

It was also the Wolverines’ last made shot of the season.

Over the game’s final five minutes, Michigan missed all eight of its shots. It started with a missed jump hook from Brandon Johns Jr., followed by Franz Wagner’s missed runner. Hunter Dickinson and Mike Smith each missed layups on subsequent trips, putting the Wolverines in a must-score situation.

Down one with 11 seconds left, Wagner launched a three from straightaway. The result was an air ball. Eli Brooks was there to catch Wagner’s shot as it fell short of the rim, but his scoop layup clanked off the iron.

After UCLA’s Johnny Juzang split a pair of free throws, the Wolverines once again looked to the 3-point line. This time, Mike Smith’s game-winning attempt rimmed out. The Bruins knocked the ball out of bounds on the rebound, leaving Michigan with 0.5 seconds to hoist one final prayer.

Wagner’s shot hit the glass and bounced off the near side of the rim — a fitting end to the Wolverines’ season on a night that saw them muster only 49 points.

“We got the look, got the shot that we wanted,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with 0.5 (seconds left), but that shot was a nice little heave. Unfortunately it just didn’t go in. Before that, we got an open look and just fell short.”

Added Brooks: “We were in place to make shots and came up short.”

For all the peaks and valleys of playing a season during a pandemic, the 2020-21 Wolverines will always be left wondering about those last eight shots. They had four clean go-ahead attempts in the last 11 seconds, and the four shots leading up to those were all quality looks from within six feet of the rim. Any one of them might’ve been enough to rewrite history.

On the night, Michigan shot just 6-for-11 from the free throw line — a steep drop-off from the Wolverines’ 77% season mark. They also shot just 3-for-11 from beyond the arc, its second-lowest percentage of the season.

After Isaiah Livers went down with a season-ending stress injury, Michigan leaned on Wagner as a primary offensive option. But on Tuesday night, he posted a career-low two points on just 1-of-10 shooting.

“Franz is one of the reasons why we’re here in this position,” Howard said. “I always have trust in all my players, and it’s never one guy fall because he doesn’t shoot the ball well. Together as a team, you win together and you lose together.”

In the end, the offensive struggles proved damning. That was never more apparent than during the game’s last five minutes.

And on a night when Howard could’ve made history at his alma mater, and when associate head coach Phil Martelli could’ve reached the first Final Four of his four-decade coaching career, and when the last remnants of the John Beilein era could’ve cut nylon one last time, all they could do was watch their last eight shots miss.