After 40 minutes, Michigan lost by one -- but it felt like it should have been much less, another outcome, a different narrative track.
Michigan led 68-65 with 2:04 left in the game when Oregon's Dylan Ennis stepped up to the line for the front end of a one-and-one. He missed, but Jordan Bell (16 points, 13 rebounds), who helped Oregon dominate the interior all game, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored to cut Michigan's lead to one.
If Michigan grabs the rebound there, maybe the game selects a different path down the Plinko-esque road to the finish.
Tyler Dorsey (7-for-15, 20 points) scored what proved to be the winning bucket with 1:09 to play. DJ Wilson's three-point attempt fell off the mark on the next possession, and, on the final play, senior Derrick Walton took the last shot of his Michigan career, one he's taken, and made, many times before.
Between the legs, hesitation, stepback. Start, stop, go go go. The Walton waltz is a familiar dance, one that lulls defenders to sleep with its suddenness and precision, both horizontally and vertically.
His final shot looked like so many others in his Michigan career, which was four years long but felt like 10. The seconds ticked off, one by one. He made his move and fired, the same way he had so many times before.
Only this time, it fell just short, hitting the front of the rim and falling toward the floor as the final tenths of a second of his Michigan career ticked away. His hands went up around his temples, up to the source of quickly rushing memories, estuaries feeding into a sea of emotion.
Michigan's run had come to an end.
The seniors, Walton and Zak Irvin, came to play in their final game. Walton finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists, a remarkably unsurprising stat line from him during his two-month run through opposing defenses. Irvin scored 19 points, 14 of them in the second half.
The first 20 minutes were mostly notable for how poorly Michigan played without getting blown out.
Despite a typically strong do-it-all half from Walton -- who scored eight points and assisted seven of his teammates' nine field goals in the opening 20 minutes -- the Wolverines shot just 39.3 percent from the field. Luckily for them, Oregon wasn't much better (41.4 percent), and struggles from the free-throw line also hurt the Ducks.
While the seniors stood tall, Michigan's sophomores showed their inexperience.
Days after notching a career high in points against Louisville, Moritz Wagner (3-for-10, seven points) seemed lost. He struggled on the block defensively, and never found his rhythm on the offensive end in a half that featured several bad misses from beyond the arc. Similarly, although Wilson hit back-to-back treys in the opening three minutes, he scored just six more points the rest of the way. He attempted just two shots inside the arc all game (he missed both, including a crucial one late on a bunny that probably should have been a dunk).
Add an underwhelming performance from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to the mix (1-for-6, two points, three turnovers), and it's a wonder Michigan was able to keep it so close.
Despite scoring at a measly rate of 0.89 points per possession in the first half, Michigan trailed by just two at the break, 35-33. On top of that, the Wolverines limited the Ducks' transition game and strong defense from Zak Irvin helped keep Oregon's Dillon Brooks mostly in check (2-for-6, four points in the first half).
The second half didn't go much better, but given the nature of the game, Oregon's 50-44 lead with 12 minutes left felt insurmountable. Of course, it wasn't.
Michigan answered with a 7-0 run, but Oregon scored the next five to lead 56-51. A bucket from Irvin cut the deficit to three. Not long after, Walton followed a fadeaway two with a triple to give Michigan a 61-60 lead with 4:15 left in the game.
Seemingly everything was going wrong for Michigan, but Walton and Irvin kept their team afloat. Even in defeat, the senior from Fishers, Ind., and his teammate from Detroit gave their careers a worthy coda.
A Michigan free-throw boxout could have been the difference in this one. Or, it could have been Wilson's biffed layup. Or, it could have been any number of other things, big and small.
In reality, it's not all that complicated. In a close game, Oregon made one more play at the end than did Michigan. End of story.
The story of this team, however, is so much more than this game. It started with a roar in New York with blowouts against Marquette and SMU, then took a shaky turn at the start of conference play. At one point, making the NCAA Tournament was no certainty. Many fans expressed disappointment in the team's, especially that of Irvin and Walton, whose play was not matching their recruiting rankings or seniority.
Gradually, Irvin found his level, and Walton picked his up, fast. Michigan went screaming through the home stretch, only bested twice, both in difficult circumstances at Northwestern (miracle buzzer-beater) and at Minnesota (overtime).
Then, the airplane, the run in Indianapolis, the Sweet 16. You know the story. You'll never forget it.
While any loss is disappointing, know this: this team took what was becoming a disastrous season and turned into a major success. Four wins in four days gave the Wolverines their first Big Ten Tournament title since 1998. On the petty side, Michigan somewhat avenged its 2013 national title game loss against Rick Pitino's Louisville to advance to tonight's matchup against Oregon.
All in all, the memories, not to mention the championship banner that will go up in Crisler Center, greatly outweigh the disappointment of tonight's loss.
Oregon won, by the slimmest of margins, but Michigan had its shot at the very end. For all its struggles throughout the game, Michigan went out on a note of self-determination: its best player with the ball in his hands and a chance to stay on the ride.
Exactly the way it should be.