MADISON — The excitement was palpable and the rust evident. It had been 23 days since the Michigan men’s basketball team last suited up, an enforced break interrupting the Wolverines’ stellar run through the first half of league play.
Their not-so-warm welcome back to the court? A trip to Madison to take on No. 21 Wisconsin.
After demolishing the Badgers by 23 points earlier this season, No. 3 Michigan (14-1 overall, 9-1 Big Ten) had to overcome a double-digit deficit to outlast Wisconsin (15-7, 9-6), 67-59, this time around.
An off-kilter heave from 3-point range to beat the shot clock, an air-balled hook shot and a few floaters left wide of the mark punctuated Michigan’s offensive possessions early on. The one Wolverine exempt from the sloppy start was Isaiah Livers. The senior forward looked as though he hadn’t missed a beat, scoring 20 points total and knocking down a trio of 3-pointers ten minutes into the game.
“I was just doing what the system tells me to do,” Livers said. “(Michigan coach Juwan Howard) puts me in a spot to score, I go score the ball. If not, then I try to create for someone else, create so they can get a shot, get a drive. Our offense is very, not favorable towards one guy.”
Still, even with Livers going 5-for-11, Michigan shot a disappointing 34.4% from the field in the first half.
Even more problematic for Michigan though, was its performance on the opposite end of the floor. The Wolverines looked a step slow, missing a number of assignments. During one out-of-bounds sequence, Wisconsin forward Aleem Ford was left wide open under the basket for an easy layup while his defender floundered in no man’s land.
Michigan’s spotty rotations were especially costly given the Badgers’ 3-point shooting ability. Ford took advantage with three of his own. Behind Ford, point guard D’Mitrik Trice — who scorched the Wolverines for five 3-pointers and 28 points last season — and 6-foot-10 matchup problem Micah Potter, Wisconsin led 39-27 at the break.
“We knew that wasn’t Michigan basketball,” Howard said. “We understood that we made some mistakes on the defensive end by allowing too many open shots from three. … We got punched in the mouth first, but then in the second half, as we talked about at halftime, we needed to change our defensive disposition.”
A quick, five-minute resurgence sparked by sophomore forward Franz Wagner saw Michigan cut the deficit to three points at the 14:12 minute mark.
While the Wolverines still struggled offensively, their renewed defensive focus kept the Badgers within reach. After shooting 55% in the first half with five 3-pointers and just four turnovers, Wisconsin shot 25%, had one 3-pointer and committed seven turnovers against a scrappy Michigan defense — reminiscent of the one that limited the Badgers to a season-low 54 points in the teams’ first meeting.
At times the Wolverines looked completely incapable of scoring from open play, but their effort paid off in trips to the foul line — 14 of them to be exact.
Buoyed by its defense and free-throw shooting, Michigan kept it close heading down the stretch. Another 3-pointer from Livers, a critical offensive putback from freshman center Hunter Dickinson — who finished with a double-double in the form of 11 points and 15 rebounds — and a contested runner from Wagner put the Wolverines ahead by four with a minute remaining.
After out-scoring the Badgers 40 to 20 in the second half and with momentum on its side, Michigan put the game to bed.
“Kinda thought about who wants it more,” Livers said. “Not saying they didn’t want it but obviously the team that comes out with the victory is the team that wants it more. You could see it in our eyes, see it in our expression, our body language. … We were super locked in. Guys were flying around and playing that Michigan basketball on defense that we know how to play.”
Added Dickinson: “I think this was a great experience for us. We haven’t had too many close games, usually they’re ten points or more. … I think what really helped us was our senior and veteran leadership.”
With a catalogue of excuses at their disposal and ample opportunity to throw in the towel, the Wolverines displayed championship-level mettle worthy of the nation’s third-ranked team in registering a hard-fought victory on the road.
“It’s a big, big, big confidence builder,” Howard said.
“We didn’t lose your confidence before this game by having a pause, but to get a win like this on the road, it’s a great feeling. We’ll enjoy it.”
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