The Michigan basketball team entered last night's Big Ten/ACC match-up against the Miami with something to prove. Despite being 3-0 after gutting out a tough road win against Boston University and mounting a come from behind victory against a disciplined Butler team at home, there were still questions about how good they actually were. While that question obviously wasn't going to be answered in one night, the Wolverines certainly could earn a level of legitimacy with a victory over a quality opponent like the Hurricanes.
Both teams got off to rocky starts offensively, but Michigan center Courtney Sims paced the home team with seven points to give the Maize and Blue a 16-14 edge at the 8:44 mark. Miami's star player, Guillermo Diaz, then responded with a knifing drive to the bucket for the and-1 to give his team the lead, but the advantage was short-lived. Dion Harris caught fire for the first time this season, nailing two straight three-pointers to put the Wolverines up 22-17 with 6:58 to go. When the Detroit native knocked down his first shot, Michigan headman Tommy Amaker knew it was a sign of good things to come.
"We need him to be able to shoot the ball and be an offensive presence for us," Amaker said of Harris. "I think when he does that, you see his energy level go up and he becomes a better defender. He got on the offensive glass and he made some great passes this evening. I think he had six assists and one turnover. I just thought his flow of game was tremendous. But he made some shots and I think with Dion that's such a key for him - to see that ball go in the basket."
Miami's backcourt tandem of Diaz and Robert Hite knotted things up again with a three-pointer and a lay-up respectively, but Michigan was right there to answer yet again. Senior forward Chris Hunter went on a 7-0 run, (aided by an assist from Harris on a three-pointer), to put the Wolverines up by that margin with just under two minutes left on the clock. Amaker's bunch had a chance to extend that margin in the waning moments of the half, but turnovers and missed shots saw them head to the intermission clinging to a five point lead, 31-26.
When the Wolverines emerged from the locker room, they looked like a different team. They were much more efficient and responsible with the ball, and their defensive intensity was the best it has been thus far in the young season. Graham Brown was everywhere defensively, drawing at least four charges on the night and grabbing 11 rebounds. In addition the defensive rotations, switches, and on the ball defense were extremely crisp and effective. That allowed the home team to sprint out on a 21-8 run in the first ten minutes to take a 52-34 lead. Amaker had stressed the importance of using defense to generate offense to his players, and they heeded that advice.
"I thought the second half was a tremendous defensive performance by our team," Amaker said. "I thought our guards with Daniel [Horton], Dion [Harris] and Lester [Abram] against their very explosive, quick perimeter players did a tremendous job there. Defending those guys, making them take tough shots, getting turnovers and getting things in transition. I thought our post guys were tremendous with hedging and helping, but also getting on that backboard in the second half. That was the difference. We took care of the basketball better in the second half. We caused some turnovers by their team, we cashed in and we converted."
The visitors mounted one final comeback attempt behind a valiant effort from Diaz, who finished the game with 21 points to lead all scorers. He helped cut the deficit to 13 (54-41) at the 8:27 mark, but that's as close as it would get. Harris scored five points and Horton eight (including two threes) down the stretch to help the Wolverines roll to the 74-53 victory.
Michigan finished the game with five players in double figures, led by Harris' 16 points, six rebounds and six assists. Along with the impressive defensive showing, Amaker was also very pleased with the offensive balance his team demonstrated. "I love the balance that we seem to have right now with our team offensively," Amaker said. "I think we were really rushing and were so excited to play in the first half. We were throwing the ball all over the gym. I thought we settled down and we made some tremendous plays in the second half. We finished the month of November undefeated, including our exhibition games and we also talked about that. So what a nice start for our kids, and we knew we needed to have a good start for this coming season to get the confidence for our kids. I think right now we are in a good frame of mind."
Next up for the Maize and Blue is a road match-up Saturday with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Tipoff is scheduled for 2pm in South Bend.