- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 3, 2014
MINNEAPOLIS — Until Thursday night, you just had to take Michigan’s word that redshirt junior center Jon Horford’s leadership was instrumental to the team.
For someone playing just 14 minutes a game, his role as team captain wasn’t obvious on the court, so you had to trust that Horford’s impact came behind the scenes.
But that changed with 15:32 remaining in the second half at Williams Arena.
At that point, the Wolverines’ season looked to be in doubt. Minnesota had grabbed a 36-30 lead. A fifth loss by Jan. 2 — and a second against an unranked opponent — would have Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances in question.
Freshman guard Zak Irvin had just missed a wide-open corner 3-pointer, and freshman point guard Derrick Walton was called for a foul on the ensuing Golden Gopher transition break.
The latter development compelled Michigan coach John Beilein to run to mid-court to bark at the referee during the media timeout — though he was ultimately ignored. As if matters weren’t fragile enough in a ruthless road environment, sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III had just injured his ankle two minutes ago and was sent to the locker room to be examined. He would join fellow injured sophomore Mitch McGary on the bench the rest of the game.
When Beilein returned to the bench, he met not with his players, but with his three assistant coaches, trying to devise a strategy that could alter the course of the season.
That gave Horford the chance to address the team. The fourth-year veteran pleaded with his teammates. With everyone else sitting, Horford stood in front of them, getting in their faces and gesturing with passion. He had their attention.
“I told them if we want to win the game, then we need a guy on the midline and then we need a guy on the position we call ‘Otis,’ which is the opposite side of the guy on the midline,” Horford said, referring to defensive strategy. “If we get a guy in those two places, we’re going to win the game.”
The Wolverines must’ve had guys on the midline and on the ‘Otis’ the rest of the way, because they pulled out the comeback victory, 63-60. And that timeout appeared to be the turning point.
On the first possession after the timeout, the Golden Gophers pulled down three offensive rebounds, but missed all four shots on the series. By the time Irvin came down with a rebound, the storm had been weathered. On the other end, Walton knocked down a 3-pointer to close the gap to three points. That started a 10-3 run which saw Michigan regain the lead.
“It’s just a role that I have to fall into,” Horford said about vocal leadership. “In the past, we’ve had such great leaders here at Michigan, that wasn’t really my place. It wasn’t my role. But if I had to come into that role, I’m honored and I’m prepared.”
It was also one of the best games Horford has played in his Michigan career. Though Minnesota punished the Wolverines on the offensive glass, he remained tough against Gopher center Elliott Eliason, who coupled 10 points with 10 rebounds. Horford countered that with 14 points and nine rebounds of his own. Seven of those points came in the final five minutes, as he demonstrated a soft touch on short jumpers and aggression on a dunk after sophomore guard Nik Stauskas drew attention and found the open man.
“Jon’s worked as hard as anybody in the offseason,” Stauskas said. “Just being in the weight room, staying in the gym for extra free throws, extra hook shots. He’s been there, so to see late-game situations, for him to make little 15-footers or dump-offs or dunks, that’s huge for him.”
For a frontcourt that has struggled to find rhythm and consistency without McGary, the performance was welcome.
“(Assistant Coach) Bacari (Alexander) says this perfectly,” Beilein said. “He’s looking for smooth air. There’s always a bump here or there or foul trouble or there’s been injuries. He’s just looking for playing time and get through some of those things. Find a different elevation where he can play, and (Horford) made some really nice plays today.”
With no foul trouble and steady production, Horford played a career-high 30 minutes, including the decisive final ten minutes. His stamina was not going to be a problem.
“The young man, he eats right, he trains right, he’s in the gym all the time,” Beilein said. “I couldn’t be happier for any player ever that I’ve coached.”