When his team isn’t hitting free throws, John Beilein has simple advice: picture your loved ones.
“I usually tell them to think about their mother … relax them a bit.”
Beilein admitted he didn’t relay the message to his team on Saturday against Minnesota, only one miscue of many that contributed to the Michigan men’s basketball teams foul shooting woes. Despite a 76-73 overtime victory over the Golden Gophers, the stench of a 12-for-28 performance from the charity stripe reeked and lingered.
“I didn’t look at the box score because I’m just very happy we won,” said junior forward Moritz Wagner. “Obviously we weren’t shooting well (from the line), but the good thing is we can learn from victory now and not from defeat.”
At many times throughout the game, the misses seemed unfortunate, but non-essential. The Wolverines, victims of a two-point halftime deficit thanks to tactical scoring by Minnesota’s backcourt, shot 5-for-6 from the line in the first half. Redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews missed six consecutive free throws in the first six minutes of the second half, and Michigan was still within three points.
The moans and muddled chatter of fans at Crisler Center longing for a made free throw were audible, but hope still didn’t waver. Then sophomore center Jon Teske bricked the front end of a one-and-one, the Golden Gophers’ lead ballooned to ten the next possession and the restlessness escalated.
“It’s basically like a turnover when you miss two free throws,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “You’re turning the ball over, you don’t get that possession. And then it's tough, you gotta make at least one.”
Down only one point with four minutes remaining in the second half, Abdur-Rahkman — a 91 percent free throw shooter before Saturday’s contest — drew a foul, and the arena exhaled in relief. But the senior promptly bounced the ball off the iron and out. Both times.
A 6-0 Michigan run gave it a five-point lead with 18 seconds to go, Abdur-Rahkman went to the line again to put the game to bed. Once again, two misses for the typically rock-solid foul shooter.
Abdur-Rahkman called it a rare “mental block.” Minnesota charged down the court with a layup, forced a turnover on the inbounds pass and hit a three to tie the game. One more made free throw amongst a 5-for-17 second-half showing would have made the Golden Gophers’ comeback efforts obsolete — no overtime and a quicker win. But that wasn’t the case.
In the extra period, free throws once again almost doomed the Wolverines. With 1:45 remaining, sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson — a 50 percent free throw shooter — clinked two off the rim with only a one point advantage. After a Minnesota bucket, Matthews hit only one of two free throws to tie the game at 71.
For Beilein, the free throw issues facing his team had him digging 35 years into the archives of his coaching career.
“I think of my Le Moyne team,” Beilein said, reflecting on his nine-year stint with the school. “We had a bunch of big guys in 1983 or ‘84 that was the same thing. It’s been a good 30 some years since then we’ve had this issue. … If you hear frustration from me it's because I can’t find the answer yet. And I don’t recall having it except for 30 years ago.”
With four seconds on the clock in a tied contest, Abdur-Rahkman drove to the hoop, pirouetted around his defender while getting fouled and converted a layup. Fittingly, after facing palpable uncertainty at the line, Abdur-Rahkman dribbled, relaxed his shoulders and calmly sunk the and-one foul shot, leaving the Golden Gophers to chuck up a deep prayer that wouldn’t fall.
In the post-game press conference, Beilein praised the Michigan’s defense and showed gratitude that his team could somehow pull out the win. The free throw woes, on the other hand, are something he would like some help with.
“We’re ready for anything right now,” Beilein said. “A hypnotist? I wanna find out everything we can do right now.”