Who would have thunk it? If you would have lined up 100 Michigan fans before Wednesday night's clash with the Michigan State Spartans and told them that the Maize and Blue would be without Lester Abram, Dion Harris would shoot 1/12 from the field, and Courtney Sims would score only four points…99 of them would have said the Wolverines would lose. Despite all of those setbacks, Tommy Amaker's bunch was standing in the winners circle after the annual grudge match, and that was do in large part to the heroic efforts of his three senior players.
Heading into the game, much was made of the mental state of the team after close losses to three ranked opponents. The near misses at home against UCLA, and on the road against Indiana and Illinois had many believing that the Wolverines had doubts as to whether they could pull out a big game. Questions about whether the program was headed in the right direction were prevalent in the papers and on talk radio. Despite all of the doubts, the team was confident it could do what no one expected them to.
"I think we're a confident ball club, period," Daniel Horton said prior to last night's contest. "A lot of people may not have confidence in us or believe that we can do certain things, but we feel we can go out win, and compete against anybody. I know myself, Dion, and other guys…we feel like no matter who we step on the court against, if we execute and do the things that we practice, we'll be able to come out on top."
When game time finally rolled around, they were anxious to back up those words. Horton got things started immediately, scoring five straight points to get the capacity crowd at Crisler Arena rocking moments after the opening tip. But just as quickly, the Spartans came right back. Back to back three pointers by Drew Neitzel and Maurice Ager fueled an 8-0 run that put the Green and White on top, and the game was officially on.
Over the next nine minutes Tom Izzo's club turned up the heat at both ends of the floor to seize control early. Neitzel found Marquise Gray on the break for a dunk to ignite a 20-8 to run to put the Spartans up 28-15, leaving the Wolverines on the ropes with 7:41 left in the first half.
Horton balanced the sinking ship with two free throws at the 7:35 mark, but the Wolverines needed a big spark to get them back in the contest. They got just what they were looking for from an unexpected source. Ronald Coleman was inserted into the starting lineup in place of Abram, and he responded in a big way. The Romulus native drained five straight points, including timely three-pointer, to cut the lead to single digits (30-22) with 5:38 remaining.
An emphatic Matt Trannon dunk capped a four point answer by the Spartans and threatened to deflate the Wolverines comeback effort. But Coleman was "Johnny on the spot" again…this time nailing another jumper to keep his team in it.
The Maize and Blue continued to chip away at the Spartan lead as halftime approached by aggressively attacking the basket and drawing fouls. They converted 6/6 free throws (four of which came from Daniel Horton) as part of an 8-5 run down the stretch to head into the locker room down 39-32.
Both Amaker and his players expressed disappointment in their first half play, and they addressed the problem during the break. "We just felt that we had to play Michigan basketball," Amaker said. "We felt that we weren't doing that as much in the first twenty minutes. We needed to play tougher. We needed to sprint back on defense. It wasn't, in our opinion, at that point an X and O game. It was going to be a game of heart and determination. They came at us and really knocked us on our heels right away with their transition game and their toughness. My knees were shaking. I was shaking so much I had to sit down. But, I really had trust in our players and I thought they were prepared for it and the situations we were in."
That trust proved to be well placed in the second half. After the four points from Graham Brown helped the Wolverines keep pace with the Spartans early on, the Wolverines made a run that displayed the type of passion that Amaker was clamoring for.
Michigan was again very aggressive on the offensive end and that continued to be rewarded with foul calls. Two trips to the free throw line and a lay-up from Chris Hunter got the Maize and Blue within two points (45-43) for the first time since early in the fist half. The next time down the floor, Hunter was hacked down low and went to the line with the opportunity to knot things up. The senior big man came through for his team and calmly drained both freebies to tie score at 45 with 11:08 remaining, but he was just warming up. After another stop on the defensive end, Hunter received a pass from Dion Harris and hoisted up a three pointer from the corner that found nothing but the bottom of the net. The bucket gave Michigan its first lead since early in the game and put the Crisler Arena crowd in a frenzy that hadn't been seen since the NIT games of a few years ago.
Hunter assault continued minutes later with a dunk and Horton followed that up with a three pointer bomb to give Michigan a six point lead (55-49) at the 9:11 mark, but the Spartans were readying with a counter punch.
Tom Izzo's veteran club dug deep offensively and shook out of their offensive slump, nailing three jumpers, (including two from long range), over the next three minutes. The Wolverines may have wilted under the pressure of the Spartans comeback in the past, but their experience playing in tight games began to shine through. Every one of the Michigan State scores during the aforementioned span was immediately answered on the other end. The first time Horton nailed two free throws. After the next Spartan bucket, Horton responded with a jumper. On the third occasion, Courtney Sims came through with a sorely needed tip-in. When the dust settled, the Wolverines were clinging to a five point lead, (61-56), with 6:34 left in the game. Horton came through with a huge three pointer the next time down the floor to give Michigan its biggest lead of the night, but that was not enough to put the Spartans on ice.
The Wolverines still held a seven point advantage, (69-62), with 2:17 left on the clock, but a big step-back three from the top by Shannon Brown cut that lead to four. The nervousness in Crisler arena grew moments later when Maurice Ager chopped even further into that margin to two with two free throws. Chris Hunter allowed the partisan observers to take breath when he drew a foul on the other end, but he was only able to convert 1/2 from the line. That left Michigan nursing a three point lead with 24 seconds to play.
When the Spartans sprinted down the court on their ensuing possession, they worked the ball around and found Ager wide open beyond the arc. The former Detroit Crockett star drained the three-point bucket to seemingly tie the game, but Izzo had called a timeout prior to the shot. The basket was wiped away, but the Green and White still had one more opportunity with eight seconds left.
When the two teams reassembled on the floor, Ager isolated at the top of the key, created space with a cross-over dribble, and launched a long three point attempt, but it clanged off the rim. When Dion Harris secured the rebound, one of the biggest win in Tommy Amaker's tenure at Michigan was in the books. The Maize Rage swarmed the floor as the Wolverines walked off the court with the 72-67 victory
On the game Michigan was led by Daniel Horton with 23 points and five assists, Chris Hunter with 13 points and five rebounds, and Graham Brown with 10 points and seven rebounds. Maurice Ager led four Spartans in double figures with 18. For more on the game, click the following links: Boxscore, Notes, Quotes, Photos.
The stat of the night proved to be the free throw shooting disparity, The Wolverines converted 27/34 attempts compared to 6/10 for the Spartans. After the game that was a point of contention for Izzo.
"A 34-to-10 discrepancy [at the free throw line] really hurt us. It cost us the game," Izzo said. "We had a tough game. These guys have had tough games, but if you told me we held them to 41 percent shooting and shoot 20 of 48, they shouldn't win that game, but they hung around and did a couple of things. They did a pretty good job."
On the other side, Amaker felt that his team's frequent visits to the line was a product of their aggressiveness…and he told them as much.
"I told our kids that I thought they deserved the opportunity to get to the (foul) line with the way that they played.," he said. "Once you get there, you have got to cash in. We did cash in, and I thought that was the difference. It certainly helped that some of their players were getting into a little foul trouble and we were utilizing the foul. I thought that was smart basketball by our kids. I thought we were great. I thought we dumped balls out; I thought we were fighting; I thought we were blue-collar. We made a point of emphasis that we had to be a little tougher as a group and we did it collectively. Defensively, our team did a sound job. I felt we made really good decisions in the second half with the basketball, and it allowed us to get some shots on the other end. I really want to give credit to our team, their character, and their ability to bounce back after a tough stop. For us to be able to finish this type of game on the stretch that we have been on, I am really proud of our team."
Next up for the 14-3 Wolverines is a home match-up this Saturday with the Wisconsin
Badgers in a battle for first place in the Big Ten. Tip-off is scheduled for
2:35 at Crisler Arena.