MINNEAPOLIS — If there’s one consistency Michigan has shown throughout its wildly inconsistent season, it’s that no deficit is too large to overcome.
In countless games, the Wolverines had been able to dig themselves out of the holes they created. Against Texas, Penn State and Wisconsin, Michigan faced second-half deficits that had the Wolverines under immense pressure, just a crack away from breaking. Michigan bent to its limit, but never broke, and that sort of resiliency has been a defining characteristic of the Wolverines all season.
But as great as Michigan’s mental fortitude has been, it isn’t always good enough. For every one time the Wolverines have been able to overcome those sorts of deficits, it feels like they’ve fallen short two times more.
Michigan has 10 losses on its record — seven of which by single digits, five of which the Wolverines had a second-half lead and three of which Michigan had the ball with the chance to win or extend the game on the final possession.
To put it simply, the Wolverines shouldn’t be a 10-loss team. They have too much experience, talent and endurance to keep on fumbling these late-game situations, or even be in them in the first place.
Sunday night was the latest episode of the late-game horror show Michigan has been putting on all season, and it encapsulated all of the Wolverines’ struggles.
For 35 minutes, Michigan and Minnesota were in a jabbing match, exchanging buckets and leads on every possession. That all changed when a technical foul called on the Wolverines’ bench and a four-point play extended the Golden Gophers’ lead to eight with under three minutes to go.
With its back up against the tallest wall it has faced all season, Michigan came up with the right combination of explosiveness, calmness and determination to avoid complete collapse in the moment, and come up with a response. Between senior guard Derrick Walton Jr, sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson, the Wolverines went on a 12-4 run, culminating in Wilson’s last-second three to send the game to overtime.
The Wolverines had climbed out of another seemingly insurmountable hole and had five minutes to use that momentum to make Minnesota pay for leaving the door open.
“We thought once it got to overtime, the game was ours,” Walton said. “We were making the right plays, and down the stretch, even though a lot of stuff didn’t go our way, we still got a chance to win.”
But everything that went right for Michigan in the final two minutes of regulation went wrong in overtime. The Wolverines opened with two turnovers, missed two 3-pointers and saw junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman come up empty from a trip to the free throw line.
Michigan melted in crunch time again, after it played some of its best basketball to get there.
That final eight-minute stretch captured what could be the most regrettable trend the Wolverines have developed and struggled to correct all season.
Michigan has shown time and again that it’s capable of putting up points in a hurry when it absolutely needs to. But in other situations, the Wolverines have shown a harmful tendency to freeze on offense when it matters most.
That began way back in November against Virginia Tech, when Michigan scored just five points in the final five minutes to give away the game. In Iowa, the Wolverines had the ball in a tie game with 16 seconds left, only to turn it over before getting a shot off. Wisconsin held Michigan scoreless at the Kohl Center for over four minutes while it rattled off 15 unanswered points towards the end of the game.
The Wolverines had the chance to step on their opponents’ throats and put each of these games away with relative ease. Riding the adrenaline from Wilson’s shot, they could have done the same at Minnesota.
But Michigan let another golden opportunity to close out a win slip away against the Golden Gophers, and those missed chances are starting to compile for the Wolverines.
NCAA Tournament teams are expected to know and show that they can finish close games, and Michigan hasn’t done a good enough job of convincing anyone it can do that against good teams.
If the Wolverines continue to collect these late-game losses, their Selection Sunday could become a reflection on “what if” rather than a celebration of “what’s next.”
With that in mind, Michigan’s bubble status will have this team feeling like its back is against the wall from here on out. If there’s one thing we know about the Wolverines, it’s that they respond best when there’s no other option.
Carney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @br_carney.