The Michigan Wolverines entered Madison Square Garden Wednesday night looking to defend the NIT title they won on that smae court just seven months ago. This time, however, they were a little shorthanded, as last season's leading scorer (Lester Abram), was held out of the contest do to of injury. Because of that, many thought the 17th ranked Arizona Wildcats would win in a rout, but the players on Tommy Amaker's squad weren't among them.
Starting in Abram's place was former walk-on Sherrod Harrell. The Kalamazoo native opened the scoring for the maize and blue by nailing a three-point jumper. Afterward, backcourt mate Daniel Horton added two straight trifectas of his own to help Michigan regain an early lead, 9-7, heading into the first television timeout. Coming out of the break, Horton generated two more points when he rought the ball down court in transition and found Courtney Sims wide open underneath for a dunk. Four quick points by Arizona, including two by big man Channing Frye, would knot the score at 11 with 14:11 left in the half. That's when Amaker's bunch went on their first run of the game.
The Wolverines pressured the Wildcats on the defensive end, forcing a number of contested shots and turnovers. That lead to fast-break opportunities on the other end, and the Wolverines took advantage. Sophomore Brent Petway started things off with a tip in from in close, but it was Dion Harris that put the run into overdrive with a big time move in transition. As the former Detroit Redford star came down on the break, one of the Wildcat defenders crowded him in an attempt to impede his path to the basket. In response, Harris hesitated and got around the defender with a right-to-left, behind-the-back dribble on his way to the cup for two. Six points later, including two more from Harris, Michigan had a 21-11 lead with 9:22 left in the half.
Arizona came storming back over the next five minutes. Ivan Radenovich keyed the Wildcat comeback with five points (including a three pointer) on a 10-2 run to close the gap to two (23-21). The two teams traded buckets the rest of the way and the Wolverines clinged to a two point lead 27-25 heading into intermission.
Arizona coach Lute Olson was pleased with his team's defensive performance heading into the break, but their offense left a lot to desired (9/38 from the field and 3/12 from three). He was looking for improvement in that area in the second half, and he got it. Hassan Adams and Radenovich came out and scored a combined six points in the first two-and-a-half minutes, compared to just one for the Wolverines to put the Wildcats up 31-28. Michigan, however, would not let them run away with the game. The Maize and Blue started to get back in the groove offensively, and two minutes later Daniel Horton nailed a jumper to regain the lead 34-33.
The lead would change hands three times in the next five minutes before the Wildcats would try to break free yet again. Two straight buckets by Adams and Mustafa Shakur gave Arizona a 40-37 cushion. But as was the case earlier in the half, the shorthanded Wolverines continued to show their resilience.
This time they went to work down low. Chris Hunter came up with a big "and-1" to tie the score. After that, Air Georgia went into flight. Brent Petway delivered two straight monster slams to regain the momentum and put Michigan up 44-40 with just under nine minutes to go in regulation.
Six straight Wildcat points over the next two minutes give them the lead again before Petway re-tied the score at 46 with a short jumper. The lead would switch hands five more times in the next five minutes, but it was the Wolverines that were down two (55-53) with less than a minute left on the clock. That's when Dion Harris decided to take matters into his own hands. He used an aggressive right to left dribble to get into the lane and power up a big lay-in to tie the score at 55...sending the two squads to overtime.
The Wolverines quickly went to work in he extra session, as Chris Hunter received a beautiful entry pass that led to an easy dunk to put his squad up 57-55. That, however, is the last lead the Wolverines would hold. Five straight Arizona points put the Cats up 60-57 with two minutes remaining. Michigan had an opportunity to make some headway at the free throw line, but Dion Harris, Daniel Horton, and Hunter were each only able to connect on one of two from the charity stripe. A free throw from Radenovich during that same stretch left the Cats with a 61-60 lead with 17 seconds remaining.
Playing for the win, Horton brought the ball down court and went for shot. Michigan's floor leader took his man off of the dribble and made it into the lane, where three Wildcats were waiting. He was still able to get off a scoop shot that made it to the rim, but the ball bounced off, preserving the victory for Arizona.
On the game Michigan was led by Harris with 16 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds. Arizona was paced by Mustafa Shakur with 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists and Channing Frye with 13 boards. For more on the game, click the following links (Boxscore, Notes & Quotes).
Despite the outcome, Michigan Coach Tommy Amaker was still pleased with his team's effort. "Well, it's a very tough loss for us right now," Amaker said. "The kids really competed and battled. I told them in the locker room how well they did. We really bounced back. We came back initially, but you just think of the little things like free throws and second-chance opportunities. We had some fouls 30 or 40 feet from the basket. Those kinds of things are what stick out in a moment like this. But we did make so many other big plays and tough plays. We just had the ball twice with the opportunity to win it and we weren't able to win it.".
Michigan will now face Providence in the NIT consolation game Friday at 4:30. The game will air on ESPN2.