Whenever Wolverines and Buckeyes collide, sparks fly — and not in a sentimental way. That’s to be expected from two bitter rivals.
But the significance of Tuesday’s clash between the Michigan men’s basketball team and Ohio State extended far beyond any semblance of bragging rights for both teams, who entered the game tied for 12th in the Big Ten standings. Despite recent two-game win streaks, postseason aspirations were also on the line.
Ultimately, behind 23 points from their best player, Kaleb Wesson, and a controversial flagrant foul in the closing moments, the Buckeyes (15-7 overall, 5-6 Big Ten) extended their run, beating the Wolverines (13-9, 4-7), 61-58.
A sense of urgency characterized the early going as both squads looked to jump out to hot starts. Instead of catching fire, though, both Michigan and Ohio State saw a slew of ill-advised shots clank off the rim. Ten minutes into the game and the teams had combined for just 20 points — the Buckeyes holding the narrow 13-7 lead.
“I believe we got some really good shots that just didn’t go in,” freshman forward Franz Wagner said. “Had some good looks at the rim that we didn’t make. Lack of focus maybe, something like that hurts in these types of games. You need every point.”
Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson was the game’s most potent scorer, knocking down fadeaway jumpers and 3-pointers in the face of the Wolverines’ big men. His 15 first-half points were counteracted primarily by Michigan’s sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr., who led the Wolverines with eight points.
At the end of a largely inefficient but industrious first 20 minutes, where neither team shot better than 40 percent from the field, Ohio State led by just one.
The shooting woes carried over into the second half. In the rare case a 3-pointer or layup would fall, the other team would match it on the other end. At the 9:40 mark, both teams were knotted up at 38.
Wesson continued to go to work on the Wolverines’ defense as the half persisted, though. Now, instead of drawing Michigan’s bigs out to the perimeter, he was bodying them down low.
“I thought Kaleb was fantastic tonight,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I thought he imposed himself in a lot of ways … we thought he was going to be able to get some open threes. He also made some tough fadeaway shots. I think he was just playing with a lot of confidence today.”
On the other end, Ohio native and senior center Jon Teske struggled to get anything going. A point-blank miss off an alley-oop feed from senior point guard Zavier Simpson encapsulated his 1-for-7 performance from the field.
It was Simpson, though, who almost single-handedly carried the load for Michigan in the second half. With his team down by four after yielding yet another layup in the paint, Simpson was left alone on the wing and hit his third 3-pointer of the game. Mere seconds later, he finished a contested finger roll off an Ohio State turnover.
While Teske proved ineffective, senior forward Austin Davis gave the Wolverines critical minutes down the stretch. He collected an offensive rebound and tied the game at 51 with four minutes remaining, before completing a rim-running dive to the basket off an assist from Simpson.
Then, with things all square at 53, the sparks flew.
Wesson inched the Buckeyes ahead from the foul line. After the two teams traded 3-pointers, Simpson took matters into his own hands — he drove the lane and drew a foul on Ohio State’s Kyle Young. The ensuing cheers from Michigan fans were cut short as the referees conferred at the monitor and slapped Simpson with a flagrant-1 for dragging Young down with him after the foul.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Howard said. “It was explained like, Zavier went up for a layup, and as he was coming down, he grabbed his jersey and ripped it. And then I said ‘Well, if he’s going up and he’s falling, did he grab him to brace his fall?’ And (the referee) said ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess that means that you know, he needed some help.’ He did not want to absorb the contact on that momentum of hitting the floor. At the end of the day, we have to respect their call that was made. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it.”
Simpson calmly knocked down both from the foul line increasing his total 15 points and temporarily giving the Wolverines a 58-57 advantage.
But Young immediately followed suit on the other end. Per the flagrant, the Buckeyes — now up by one with 23 seconds left — retained possession, forcing Michigan to foul again. All of a sudden, the one point lead that Simpson had earned dissolved into a three-point deficit.
On the Wolverines’ final possession, Simpson again found himself at the center of attention, finding junior guard Eli Brooks wide open in the corner for a last-second chance to tie.
Just like most of Michigan’s 3-point looks, it didn’t fall, cementing a heartbreaking home loss.
“I’m sure I’m going to replay it over and over,” Howard said. “It’s a tough one to swallow, I swear. This — like all the losses — but this one hurts a lot. It was a very hard-fought game.”