Isaiah Livers shouldn’t have been in the game. In fact, for over half of it, he wasn’t.
But despite suffering another injury in the second half, Michigan knew who it needed on the floor.
The Wolverines were down by two points to Illinois with half a second and one chance, maybe, to pry a victory away from the Illini (15-5 overall, 7-2 Big Ten). A victory they desperately needed for both their record and confidence. After all, this was supposed to be the one.
Livers was back. After initially suffering a groin injury on Dec. 21 against Presbyterian, Livers missed six games and the remaining Wolverines lost four of those. Simply put, they were in freefall, and Livers was to be the massive inflatable mattress to catch their fall.
But Wagner fumbled the pass. The clock drained out allowing the red LED lights to flash and obnoxious buzzer to sound and signal another bruising loss for Michigan (11-8, 2-6), 64-62.
Frustrated, saddened and perhaps a bit defeated, sophomore guard David DeJulius then sauntered over to Livers and spoke a few words to him that were rattling around his mind all game.
“Thank you,” DeJulius said to Livers. “We appreciate you. We’re gonna have your back because we know you’re gonna have ours.”
To the fans, Livers’ injury perhaps just represents a broken season. To the team, his injury represents a broken spirit.
Livers is a core component of this basketball team and is often pegged as perpetually placing the team’s needs and desires before his own. After all, Livers is the guy who asked coach Juwan Howard to come back into the game to make the last-second inbounds pass after reinjuring his groin. He just wants to win.
Perhaps that’s what got DeJulius so emotional.
“It just took the air out of us,” DeJulius said, holding back tears. “When you know got somebody who care about the game, and he’s a better person than he is a basketball player, to see him go down again is unfortunate.”
The circumstances of Livers’ second injury make sense the more you think about it. Did the injury occur during a freak instance where Livers was away from the action?
Of course not.
Early in the second half, Livers caught the ball in transition and rose for a monstrous dunk. The noise level grew in anticipation of the ferocious slam, but it never came. Livers was fouled by Illinois guard Da’Monte Williams and landed awkwardly.
Running away from the basket, Livers grabbed his left groin area to an audible groan from the crowd. The savior was bruised.
It didn’t help that Livers was also playing great basketball. Aside from just being this amorphous force that could come back and resuscitate a struggling offense, Livers entered the game and played valuable minutes, ending the game with a team-leading plus-minus rating of three.
While Livers — along with the rest of the team — started the first half a bit slow, he really showed what he brings to the program in the second.
The junior secured his fifth rebound early, shoring up defense in the post and bringing energy to the boards. Then, with 17 minutes left to play, he caught the ball from senior guard Zavier Simpson, elevated and buried a 3-pointer to thunderous applause from Crisler Center. He would finish with seven points and five boards.
The forward was back, and he was cooking. The shot was a momentum play, giving Michigan its first lead since early in the first half.
Then, disaster struck.
“When he went down, all of us were in tears for the guy,” DeJulius said. “We know how bad he wants to be out there for his brothers. That was tough for us to see that and then go out there and compete still.”
Now with Livers’ timetable for return unclear, the rest of the team has to stare down the monumental task of winning basketball game without number two. A task they’ve faced — and failed — before. On top of that, they have to elevate their teammate who’s undoubtedly frustrated with his situation.
“Because you worry about how he doin mentally,” DeJulius said. “If we take a loss without him, that’s it, but I just want my brother to be in a position where he’s happy and in a comfortable place, and I know he’s in a dark place right now, and it’s just our job to pick him up.”
With the support of his teammates and coaching staff, Livers will undoubtedly make as speedy a recovery as possible, hoping that the team doesn’t continue to bleed out while he’s gone.
Because if they do, the next time the name Isaiah Livers is announced to roaring applause at Crisler Center, the games might start to matter less and less.