When Michigan State forward Miles Bridges said the Michigan men’s basketball team “(doesn’t) even focus on (being tough)” Saturday, he was merely regurgitating something the Michigan basketball program has heard for years.
Some prefer “soft.” Maverick Morgan chose “white collar.” But the same underlying sentiment runs true.
Defiantly, the Wolverines proved once again their label couldn’t be further from the truth. Not this team; not this year.
With guile and grit, with defense and a 3-point shooting frenzy, with a little ingenuity and a whole lot of heart, Michigan squeaked out a home win over Maryland, 68-67, just over 50 hours after knocking off then-No. 4 Michigan State at the Breslin Center.
“People are saying you’re pretty good,” Michigan coach John Beilein told his team before the game Monday. “I’ll tell you how good you are if you can beat Maryland.”
They’ve had one-day preparation windows before, but not of this difficulty. 24 hours sandwiched between a heavyweight in-state rival and a hungry conference foe posed a test of physical and mental fortitude unlike anything they’ve faced this year.
To accomodate Madison Square Garden as the venue for the Big Ten Tournament, the conference condensed its schedule, forcing each team to deal with short turnarounds. The Wolverines got a day of practice — though hardly strenuous — in between the games against the Spartans and the Terrapins. Coming off the emotional high of the win over Michigan State, Monday reeked of a trap game.
“First of all, I’ve got to come down from the adrenaline in East Lansing because when you’re out there it’s a little different,” Wagner said. “It’s a different atmosphere. And you win, obviously having a good game as a team, and then talking trash after and all the surrounding stuff that you don’t want to get caught up in, like that takes energy, too. You’ve got to come down from that, relax, then make your mind up that you have the next game in 48 hours.”
For the first 20 minutes, the “letdown” narrative fit to a tee.
The Wolverines shot 9-for-29 in the first half, with zero free-throw attempts. They made just two 3-pointers in the half, and hardly fared much better with the attempts close to the rim. Down 30-20 at halftime, the defense was propping up a lackadaisical offense to little avail.
“It was one of those days when we felt like ‘Nothing is really working today,’ ” Wagner said. “We don’t give up. We’ve been down 18 points before, we’ve been down 16 against Purdue. We’ve been in these situations, we trust each other.”
In the middle of the second half, that trust — and the mental fortitude — began to pay off.
In the blink of an eye, the energy perhaps still radiating in the locker room at Breslin Center made its appearance. First, it was Poole hitting an open 3-pointer at the top of the key. Then Wagner slipped a screen and hit another. Then Isaiah Livers found the bottom of the net from his now-patented corner. Then Poole hit a transition, step back three from the wing. Then, to bring the house down, Poole again.
“I don’t know why they left me open,” Poole said, “that’s all I can say.”
In his charicteristically boisterous fashion, Poole turned to the Crisler faithful, put three fingers to his head and made his presence known. As if there’s ever a doubt with him.
“If I hit one,” Poole said. “I feel like I’m The Microwave.”
Five straight possessions. Five straight threes. One game-altering run.
But it was far from game-sealing. With tired legs coercing Michigan to crawl — and prohibiting it from cruising — to a finish, the Terrapins fought back furiously.
With 20 seconds left and the Wolverine lead diminished to five, Maryland guard Anthony Cowan stepped up and made a contested three-pointer from the top of the key. Then after two missed free throws from sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson, Maryland freed guard Kevin Huerter for an open three to take a one-point lead. Splash.
It conjured scenes from the Wolverines’ heartbreaking one-point loss to Purdue less than a week ago.
Perhaps a softer team would have mailed in another close loss, emphasized the “Woe, is me” nature of playing under these circumstances and packed its bags for Omaha, Nebraska.
Instead, with 3.2 seconds left, it executed to perfection.
Isaiah Livers — a former baseball player — tossed the inbounds pass over Cowan’s head, straight to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman at halfcourt as he strided toward the hoop. Head down, full-steam ahead, Abdur-Rahkman overcame a poor shooting night with the moment of the game, drawing a foul to get to the line. With silence more conducive to a library than a crowded arena, the 92 percent free-throw shooter sunk both without even grazing the rim or cracking a smile.
Neither a quick turnaround nor shooting struggles could faze a traditionally stoic Abdur-Rahkman.
“Me?” Abdur-Rahkman prefaced when asked about how he prepared with the short turnaround. “I was just playing Xbox with a couple guys on the team.”
“That (turnaround) is tough, but that’s what makes good teams good — and we know that,” Wagner said. “Adversity, we’ve proven that we can win and adjust. But prosperity? That’s what the really good teams adjust to.
“We had a tough time, we found a way.”