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Defense outsized against Wildcats

Paul Sherman/Daily
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By Simon Kaufman, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 14, 2013

With 8:26 left in the second half of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against No. 1 Arizona on Saturday at Crisler Center, Wildcat forward Brandon Ashley missed a jumper and then got his own rebound. He put up another shot that didn’t go, but teammate Nick Johnson came down with the ball. Johnson shot, missed, and got the board. After a timeout, Arizona put up the fourth failed shot of the possession but still reclaimed the ball off the glass.

Four missed shots. Four rebounds. Four second chances.

Arizona shot, picked up offensive boards and then did it all again in a 72-70 win over the Wolverines (6-4).

Last week, Michigan simulated Arizona’s size and length — its starting lineup features three players who are at least 6-foot-8 — by having the scout team hold sticks. But when it mattered most, the Wolverines couldn’t handle the Wildcats’ athleticism, and offensive boards led to easy points in the paint.

“They had so much size in the frontcourt, so we were doing the best we could,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas. “We can’t make it a jumping contest. When they have length like that, we really gotta hit and make sure that we box them out.”

Arizona (11-0) outrebounded Michigan 37-24, including a 17-6 advantage on offensive boards. In the first half, though, the Wolverines limited the Wildcats to just two second-chance points though they grabbed nine offensive rebounds.

Redshirt junior Jon Horford led Michigan’s impressive first-half defense with four blocks and a steal and helped force Arizona into poor shot attempts. The Wolverines were then able to run their fast-paced transition offense and carry a nine-point lead into the locker room.

But by the second half, Michigan’s inability to grab defensive rebounds caught up with them. Arizona outworked the Wolverines down low and, in less than four minutes, shrunk a nine-point deficit to two. The Wildcats turned eight offensive rebounds into six second-chance points and scored 20 points in the paint in the second half alone.

“They really put an emphasis on (getting the ball in the) paint,” Horford said. “They were throwing it in a lot. They’d throw it in, kick it out, repost, and they were taking advantage of their length and their size. I almost imagined their coach telling them ‘Just go throw it up at the rim. We’re going to get the offensive rebound anyway, so just throw it up.’ ”

Michigan switched from a man-to-man defense into a 1-3-1 zone midway through the second half, but it made no difference. With 2:32 left in the game, the Wildcats tied the game by getting into the paint for a tough layup. Arizona was too big and too tough for Michigan to keep away from the basket.

“We’re not necessarily the longest or tallest team,” Horford said. “We have to be tough. We have to be able to box out (and) clear those guys out.”

Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “Some of that toughness is in the weight room, and that takes time. Another area is just a focus of being mentally tough, to stay with a box out, stay with your man.”

Size can’t be taught, but Arizona was the stronger team — both physically and mentally — Saturday afternoon.