By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 5, 2012
BLOOMINGTON — The Michigan men’s basketball team’s two seniors and co-captains — guards Zack Novak and Stu Douglass — hail from the Hoosier state, but Indiana was not kind in their homecoming on Thursday night.
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With 25 ticks left, Verdell Jones III knocked down a mid-range jumper to put Indiana up by four. And with 2.9 seconds, Douglass nailed his third 3-pointer of the game to pull Michigan within one, but it was too little, too late. The Hoosiers came out on top in gut-wrenching fashion, 73-71.
“No, there are no moral victories,” a frustrated Novak said after the game. “We’ll learn from our mistakes and get better.”
Throughout the contest, Indiana (2-1 Big Ten, 14-1 overall) backed up its reputation as one of the most efficient shooting teams in the nation, pouring in seven buckets on just 11 tries from beyond the arc. Indiana forward Christian Watford could not be contained, as he finished the game 8-for-11 from the field and 3-for-4 from long range. He tallied a game-high 25 points.
Less than a minute into the contest, Watford squared up behind the arc and knocked down the first bucket of the game. The basket electrified the crowd as if the Hoosiers had already won, and indeed, the Wolverines weren’t able to get a lead at any point in the game.
“That guy — that dribble pull-up is a monster,” said sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. of Watford. “He’s a terrific player, and a lot of people sleep on him. Once you play him, you really got to guard him. You got to give him credit for what he’s doing out there on the court.”
Heading into the first media timeout, Indiana held an early 11-point lead and all of the momentum, as Michigan (2-1, 12-3) couldn’t find an offensive rhythm.
By halftime, that lead was trimmed to seven, but the Hoosier defense was still containing the Wolverines’ best shooters. Freshman point guard Trey Burke and Hardaway Jr. were a combined 3-for-15 from the field at the half.
And at times, it seemed as though the thunderous crowd was getting to Burke, but Michigan coach Beilein did not think that was the case.
“I thought he was fine,” Beilein said. “He didn’t look like a freshman to me. … He had pull-up jump shots that didn’t go, and they were right at the back of the rim. They weren’t air balls, they weren’t to the side, they were right on central. Taking the ball to the hoop against a strong chest, it’s tough to score there. I thought he played well, the ball just didn’t go in.”
Added Indiana coach Tom Crean: “(Burke is) a big-time player. I have a friend of mine that’s up there that I really respect in basketball that said he’s a young Deron Williams. And when you get in the game with him, he doesn’t seem young. He’s good.”
Though Hardaway Jr. finished with a team-high 19 points, he is now 0-for-11 from 3-point range over the past two games. Had it not been for Douglass’s pair of clutch 3-pointers in the waning minutes of the half, Michigan’s outlook at the locker room break would have been a bit gloomier.
The second half was kinder to the Wolverines.
Michigan inched its way back into the contest, pulling within one point just four minutes into the half. And a minute later, sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz nailed a 3-pointer in front of the Wolverine bench to knot up the score at 46 and silence the Hoosier faithful — temporarily.
“I hope that’s always a great trademark of our teams now,” Beilein said. “I hope it’s not a trademark to be down by two digits. I thought we really hung in there. You guys know it, this place gets rocking and rolling just like a lot of places in this league, and I thought we handled that.”
Over the next few minutes, though, the Michigan defense had trouble containing star freshman center forward Cody Zeller, who took advantage of the shallow Wolverine frontcourt. He finished an impressive 8-for-10 from the field, with 18 points.
“That was the biggest part of the game plan,” Crean said. “We had to establish an inside game — we had to go at these guys. They were averaging two blocks a game with (sophomore forward Jon) Horford injured. So we needed to go inside, and our guys did that.”
Though the Wolverines erased another 10-point deficit with three minutes to play on a Hardaway Jr. breakaway dunk, Michigan failed to take the lead and became Assembly Hall’s 11th-straight victim.