The ball was in the hands of the player that Michigan coach Juwan Howard trusted most with his team’s season on the line.
Franz Wagner curled around a left-wing screen from Hunter Dickinson and discovered that the UCLA center who switched onto him had given him ample space to shoot. Sensing his moment, Wagner pulled up, let a potential go-ahead 3-pointer fly and … left it a few inches shy of the rim.
That airball was the indelible image from Michigan’s 51-49 Elite Eight loss to 11th-seeded UCLA on Tuesday night in Indianapolis. The loss ended the Big Ten champion Wolverines’ spectacular season one victory shy of the Final Four.
On a night when Michigan shot less than 40 percent as a team and failed to make any of its final eight attempts from the field, it was Wagner who had the roughest night of all. The heralded 6-foot-9 NBA prospect scored just four points, missed all but one of the 10 shots he hoisted and gave up more baskets than he usually does on defense too.
"We knew he was a strong right-handed driver," UCLA guard Johnny Juzang said. "We had some of their plays and actions kind of scouted out. Guys went out and executed great. Tried to take away those things and slow him down."
So many times, Michigan turned to Wagner to try to jump-start its stalled offense. So many times, he did not come through.
He missed one of his trademark driving layups with less than three minutes to play and Michigan down by one. He had the 3-point attempt that failed to draw iron with 12 seconds to go and the Wolverines still within one. And he misfired one more time when Howard went back to him again with Michigan inbounding from under the basket with five tenths of a second to go.
Instead of maybe diagramming a lob to Dickinson, Howard had his 7-footer inbound the ball to Wagner sprinting to his left. This time Wagner’s last-gasp 3-point attempt was long, leaving him to put his hands on his head dejectedly as UCLA players celebrated in the background.
“We got the shot that we wanted,” Howard said. “There’s not much you can do with point five, but that shot was a nice little heave. Unfortunately it just didn’t go in.”
Howard admitted he would lose sleep over the loss but not over trusting Wagner with Michigan’s season at stake.
“Franz is one of the biggest reasons we were here in this position,” Howard said. “I’ll always have trust in all my players. It’s never one guy’s fault because he didn’t shoot the ball well. Together as a team, you win together and lose together.”
The horror show of a night from Wagner was tough to watch because it’s not how he should be remembered. This is a player who has been one of the pillars of Michigan’s 23-win season and a prospect whose stock has skyrocketed because of his potential fit in the modern NBA.
A long, athletic wing who moves his feet well and has good off-ball instincts, Wagner was one of the Big Ten’s best all-around defensive players this season. The 19-year-old still has room to grow as a scorer, but he averaged 12.8 points per game, excelled attacking off the dribble and showed improvement as an outside shooter.
Wagner is the brother of Moritz Wagner, the Chicago Bulls forward who led Michigan to the 2018 national championship game as a junior before turning pro. Whereas Moritz was taken 25th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, Franz had been considered a mid-first-round pick or even a late lottery pick prior to Tuesday night.
While Wagner’s woes contributed to the Michigan loss, the sophomore was far from the only Wolverines player to struggle against a tough, physical UCLA defense.
Mike Smith went 1-for-7 from the field and had a potential game-winning 3-pointer rim out just before Wagner’s final miss. Hunter Dickinson had a team-high four turnovers and clanked three of the four foul shots he attempted. And Eli Brooks was one of several Wolverines to misfire on go-ahead layup attempts down the stretch.
"That's how it goes sometimes," Howard said. "In the game of basketball, sometimes there are one or two possessions that can help you or hurt you. For us, we came up short."
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