INDIANAPOLIS — Slow and steady wins the race — only this time, the reptile lost to its furry opponent.
In Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinal, the Michigan men’s basketball team (20-3 overall, 14-3 Big Ten) flipped the traditional script, ultimately outpacing Maryland (16-13, 9-12), 79-66.
The Terrapins came out of the gates red-hot and aggressive. The Wolverines meanwhile, looked timid and unsure of themselves.
In addition to multiple 3-pointers from guard Eric Ayala and forward Jairus Hamilton, Maryland’s flashy start was exemplified by one sequence midway through the first half. Off a missed 3-pointer by Michigan’s senior guard Eli Brooks — who was a game-time decision coming into the game after injuring his ankle against Michigan State last Sunday — the Terrapins raced down the court past the retreating Wolverine defense. When junior guard Aaron Wiggins got the ball just beyond the 3-point line, only one thing was on his mind — take no prisoners, only catch bodies. Wiggins crossed over fifth-year senior Austin Davis and elevated over an outstretched Franz Wagner to slam it home and increase Maryland’s lead to eight points.
Michigan struggled early offensively, starting the game 0-for-7 from deep. Brooks and senior wing Isaiah Livers looked a shell of their typical selves, scoring just three points in the first half.
“We got kinda stagnant at times,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Maryland with their defense did a really good job of packing the paint. We missed some open shots, some shots that were not contested, but I just kept telling our guys, ‘Make sure those same ones that are open, don’t be afraid to take the same shots and they will fall.’ ”
The Wolverines’ bench was their saving grace though, as the trio of Davis, senior guard Chaundee Brown and junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. went 8-for-8 from the field, compensating for an unimpressive 33% performance from Michigan’s starting five.
“I always say, just gotta come in, just do my job, defend, hit open shots and be the energy guy,” Brown said. “I feel like I did that. … All three of us did a great job of coming off the bench and giving the spark that we needed.”
Somehow, someway, the Wolverines entered the break leading, 40-38.
The Terrapins’ hot shooting tapered off considerably from the first half — dropping from 62.5% to just 48.1% for the game.
Michigan though, was a model of consistency. The Wolverines dumped it into Big Ten Freshman of the Year, center Hunter Dickinson, for four quick points in the paint while graduate point guard Mike Smith, who finished with an 18-point, 15-assist double-double, orchestrated the offense to perfection from the perimeter. Between Smith, Brooks and sophomore wing Franz Wagner, Michigan found its rhythm from beyond the arc.
“A lot of times Mike had the ball and had to make the right play and he did and created so much space for other people to hit open threes,” Wagner said. “The most important thing is that we execute our plays the right way, that we get open into the spots that we want, that we cut hard and with a purpose. That’s when the talent we had on the floor really comes out.”
The only blip on the Wolverines’ radar came at the 10:44 mark of the second half, when Howard was ejected from the game after a midcourt scuffle between him and Maryland coach Mark Turgeon during a commercial break. If anything though, it only served to invigorate the Wolverines further. The Terrapins had been caught from behind and now couldn’t bridge the gap.
“We knew that (Howard) always has our back and we have his back,” Brown said. “We all bonded as a team, the five players on the court and even the bench guys, we were all in it together. Just wanted to do it for him.”
In many ways, the game epitomized Michigan this season. At times, the Wolverines have stumbled out of the block, but once they find their footing, few teams in the country can keep up.
March may be a marathon, but Michigan won its first heat.