Spring Grove's Eli Brooks, Michigan Wolverines fall just short in bid to make Final Four

STEVE HEISER
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Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) drives to the basket ahead of UCLA guard UCLA Bruins guard Johnny Juzang (3) during the first half of an Elite 8 game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Eli Brooks’ 2020-2021 college basketball season fell a few points short of the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

Brooks’ Michigan Wolverines dropped a 51-49 decision to UCLA on Tuesday night in the East Region championship game in Indianapolis.

The Spring Grove High School graduate played nearly the entire game, putting in 37 minutes of work, while collecting eight points, five rebounds and four assists. The 6-foot, 1-inch senior finished 3 for 8 from the field and 2 for 2 from the foul line.

Brooks now has a decision to make. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA has given all current athletes an extra year of eligibility. Brooks says he’s uncertain if he’ll come back for a fifth year at Michigan. 

“That’s a conversation to be had in our exit meeting,” Brooks said after the game. “I’ve talked about it with my family and have weighed different options, but I haven’t come to a conclusion. I can only speak for myself.”

Asked Tuesday night what he'll take away from this pandemic-plagued season, Brooks talked about the closeness of his team.

"Just the adversity that we had — I mean, everybody had — in this season," he said. "And just how close this group was and how locked in and mentally tough this team was all season. Because there's a lot of opportunities that we could've taken the easy way out and made excuses and we didn't do that. We stepped up. And we played hard every single game.

"There were a lot of sacrifices to be made throughout this season, just to get through the season. It was worth it because we had a good group of guys and we got to play a game we love. But it was difficult."

The loss means that the Big Ten won’t have a team in the Final Four, despite the fact that the conference sent a league-record nine teams into the tournament. Michigan (23-5) was the final Big Ten team left standing.

The top-seeded Wolverines shot 39% (20 for 51) from the field. 

“When you don’t make shots, it makes things a little more difficult,” Brooks said.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, Brooks gave credit to the Bruins.

“They played extremely hard. They earned that win,” Brooks said. “I’m not going to take anything away from them. They made everything challenging.”

A chance to win at the end: Despite their shooting woes, the Wolverines still had a chance to win the game at the end.

Franz Wagner missed a 3-pointer with 11.1 seconds to go, and Brooks couldn’t score on the put-back. Mike Smith missed an open 3 and then, after the refs put 0.5 seconds back on the clock, Wagner missed an open 3 to seal the league’s fate. The Wolverines missed their final eight shots.

“Very disappointing for our guys.” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “It came down to one possession, that’s how it goes sometimes. The game of basketball sometimes comes down to one or two possessions that can really help or hurt you and we came up short.”

The Big Ten finished 8-9 in the NCAA Tournament, with only Michigan reaching the Sweet 16.

“Right now this game is still very fresh,” Howard said. “It’s going to be tough to sleep tonight.”

UCLA an unlikely Final Four team: UCLA now moves on to the Final Four after sneaking into the NCAA Tournament off four straight losses, and barely surviving Michigan State in their First Four game.

Johnny Juzang poured in 28 points for UCLA (22-9) while playing most of the second half on a hurt ankle, and coach Mick Cronin’s bunch of stubborn overachievers became only the fifth No. 11 seed to reach the national semifinals. They’re the second First Four team to make the Final Four after VCU a decade ago

“These guys get all the credit,” said Cronin, who had never been to the Elite Eight in 18 years as a college head coach, much less the Final Four. “Unbelievable heart, toughness. Nobody picked us. Nobody believed in us. That’s how we like it.”

They’ll be big underdogs again Saturday night: Overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga is up next.

“We know our next assignment is tough,” Cronin said, “but their resiliency is unbelievable.”

Gonzaga rolls: Gonzaga got on a roll and put on a show Tuesday night, moving to 30-0 on the season and cruising into the Final Four with an 85-66 victory over Southern California.

Drew Timme had 23 points and five rebounds and, after one dunk, pretended to slick down his handlebar mustache for the few thousand fans in the stands. The top-seeded and top-ranked Bulldogs will be the third team to bring an undefeated record into the Final Four since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

The last team to go undefeated was Indiana in 1976. On Saturday in the national semifinals, the Zags will face 11th-seeded UCLA, which beat Michigan 51-49 in a later Elite Eight game.

Jalen Suggs had 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists for Gonzaga, and All-American Corey Kispert had 18 points and eight boards.

Isaiah Mobley had 19 points and seven rebounds for sixth-seeded USC (25-8), and his brother Evan finished with with 17 points.

The game was interrupted by a frightening moment early, when official Bert Smith collapsed on the floor and had to be taken off in a wheelchair. In the second half, CBS passed along word that Smith was feeling OK and resting in the arena.

Reach Steve Heiser at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com. The Associated Press and The Detroit News (through the TNS news service) contributed to this report.