Free throws can be an anticlimactic way of hitting a milestone.
But for Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, a trip to the charity stripe for career-points No. 999 and 1,000 came with all the drama he could ask for. Down a point in the waning moments, the senior guard toed the line with the game on his shoulders.
The moment wasn’t too big. Abdur-Rahkman knocked down both, giving the 23rd-ranked Wolverines (5-2 Big Ten, 16-4 overall) a 68-67 win over Maryland (3-4, 14-6) at Crisler Center on Monday night.
“I was going up there visualizing making the shot,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “That’s the best way to explain it: visualizing making the big play at the big time.”
Terrapins guard Kevin Huerter looked like he had done just that on the possession before. After four straight missed free-throws from sophomore guard Zavier Simpson left the door open, Huerter drained a go-ahead 3 for Maryland with fewer than four seconds remaining.
But Michigan had the perfect play drawn up, and it started with Isaiah Livers’ “baseball arm.”
With his feet planted on Michigan’s baseline, the freshman forward heaved a precise pass to a cutting Abdur-Rakhman near half court. After the catch, only a blocking foul could stop him from scoring.
“I saw open space,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “That means go downhill. I knew I didn’t want to pull up from 3, and I just tried to get to the basket to make a play for myself or somebody else.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “I felt like we're going to win the game (when Abdur-Rahkman drove). I just felt like, when he was going to the basket, he’s gonna find a niche.”
Despite the result, there was a hangover from the Wolverines’ victory over then-No. 4 Michigan State last weekend. Through 20 minutes, Michigan looked like a shell of what it did in East Lansing.
Much of that was an inability to connect on even the best of looks. The Wolverines went just 9-for-29 and scored just 20 points in the opening frame — their lowest first-half total in conference play.
Maryland, meanwhile, got seemingly everything it desired inside, scoring 16 points in the paint and also knocked down well-defended shots. On two occasions, guard Anthony Cowan hit well-defended, low-percentage 3s to kill any momentum Michigan could muster up.
Frustration reared its head near the end of the half when Zavier Simpson missed a layup and committed a bad foul on the rebound. Beilein replaced his starting point guard with fifth-year senior Jaaron Simmons — a third-stringer who seldom sees the floor.
“Muhammed was missing, Charles (Matthews) was missing, (Simpson) was missing,” Beilein said. “That was one of the inspirational things at halftime. I said, the 1, 2 and 3 men — you guys are 3-for-15. You gotta play better. … It was, ‘What the hell? We gotta to play better.’ ”
The team clearly listened.
Capped off by a Simpson and-one bucket, the Wolverines embarked on a 10-0 run, tying the contest roughly three minutes into the frame.
Then came the rain. In a stunning sequence, Michigan buried five consecutive 3s — including a trio of triples from freshman guard Jordan Poole — for its first lead since the contest’s early moments.
The stretch was a dramatic shift in shooting the rock from the first half, as the Wolverines sunk nine 3s on 8-for-17 shooting from beyond the arc in the second after hitting just 2-of-9 3s in the first.
The barrage from outside came at an opportune time, too. In a tie game, Mortiz Wagner and Duncan Robinson hit from deep on back-to-back possessions, leading to a 10-2 run that would give Michigan a 10-point lead with around five minutes to play.
Down the stretch, however, the Terrapins responded with a 10-2 run of their own to cut their deficit to just two. Back-and-forth play dominated much of the last minute until Huerter hit his go-ahead 3.
But it was Abdur-Rahkman — with the right play and confidence when it counted — that would play hero Monday night. Four years removed from being two-star recruit from Pennsylvania, Abdur-Rahkman has a win to commemorate his milestone, thanks to a pair of free throws.
“Definitely didn’t think it was going to happen like that,” he laughed. “But I’m glad it did, and we got the win.”