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ANN ARBOR — The players who made Crisler Center rock for the better part of 40 minutes Saturday afternoon left the arena exhilarated but irritated.
The Michigan men’s basketball team’s 72-70 loss to top-ranked Arizona represented both the most heartening performance of its unsteady season and the biggest heartbreak.
The Wolverines (6-4) are not the team they want to be, and that was evident as the Wildcats overwhelmed the hosts with their size to wipe away an 11-point second-half deficit. But for a team with an all-underclassmen starting lineup, a day in which they led Arizona (11-0) for more than 36 minutes told them they can be in time.
“I think we made a major stride today, even in defeat,” UM coach John Beilein said.
Searching for its first win over a No. 1 since 1997 — an 81-73 victory against Duke in Ann Arbor — Michigan saw its lead vanish once and for all with 24.6 seconds left.
Arizona guard T.J. McConnell chased down a teammate’s miss and Nick Johnson drew a blocking foul on Mitch McGary, setting up a winning parade of foul shots. Johnson hit six free throws over the last 25 seconds, including the first pair that pushed Arizona ahead 67-66.
“An incredible battle and a great college basketball game in December,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We leave here obviously very excited knowing this was as quality of a win as you can have, in my opinion, in the country.”
Saturday a Michigan team stocked with NBA talent displayed its potential for the first time. Glenn Robinson III ditched his passive streak to score a game-high 20 points — including 16 on 7-of-7 shooting in the first half — sophomore guard Caris LeVert added 15 points, and the Wolverines blistered to a 39-28 lead early in the second half.
Most encouraging for UM was Robinson’s burst. Though gifted enough to be projected as a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound sophomore often blends into the offense. This day was different. Robinson matched his 11-point season average in the first half.
“You can definitely tell that we're all getting better,” he said.
Ultimately, Arizona’s length — and, perhaps, toughness — was too much. A Wildcats front line of 7-foot sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski (14 points), 6-9 freshman Aaron Gordon (14), and 6-8 sophomore Brandon Ashley (18 points) cleaned up inside. Arizona outrebounded the Wolverines 37-24.
Michigan had a chance to counter Johnson’s go-ahead free throws. Nik Stauskas missed an open 15-footer he said he “had to knock down,” and after Johnson hit two more foul shots to put Arizona ahead 69-66 with nine seconds left, Miller did not allow the Wolverines a chance at a tying 3.
Miller had the Wildcats foul sharpshooter Spike Albrecht, citing a bitter lesson learned at his previous stop. In the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, with his Xavier team on the brink of a stunning upset over top-seeded Ohio State, Ron Lewis’ game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation instead sent the Musketeers on their way to devastation.
Albrecht made one of two free throws and this December thriller was history. For Michigan, though, its hopes of another memorable season were not.
“You looked at our schedule and you looked at who we are, we weren't going to come out of this 10-0,” Beilein said. “We were going to have losses. This could have been a great win, and it would have meant something today. But it probably wouldn't have meant anything in January to us.”