After leading for the entire game, the Michigan men’s basketball team was down one with under a minute to play.
Senior forward Zak Irvin got the ball on the left wing, and the stage was set for your standard college basketball heroics.
But no one in Crisler Center ever got to witness that show. Irvin dribbled the ball back and forth on the wing until the shot clock wound down, pulled up for a fadeaway and clanked one off the rim. A make would not have guaranteed victory, but it would have forced the pressure back on to Virginia Tech. Instead, Michigan managed just one more shot the rest of the game — a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer by redshirt junior forward Duncan Robinson.
“I really just wanted to drive to the basket, try to use the free throw line or look for Duncan in the corner,” Irvin said. “But I wasn’t able to get there, so at that point I was just really trying to make something.”
Irvin’s attempted go-ahead basket was just a microcosm of an issue that has been plaguing the Wolverines through their last three games: They seem to be flirting with the idea that they will live or die by the jumper.
And while the matchup against Virginia Tech featured a greater emphasis on playing through the post, Michigan didn’t use that strategy nearly enough, eventually leading to a 73-70 loss against the Hokies.
In the first half, with the way the Wolverines were shooting, playing on the perimeter didn’t appear to be an issue. They shot 55 percent from the floor and connected on seven of their 14 shots from deep. If that weren’t enough, Irvin, a senior wing, looked poised for one of his typical scoring nights, posting 15 points in 17 minutes.
Down the stretch, though, as the Hokies went on a 23-10 run in the final eight minutes, choosing to shoot out of a slump proved to be a problem — the same one that spelled doom against South Carolina.
During Virginia Tech’s run, Michigan shot 3-for-12 from the floor, and 10 of those shots came from behind the arc or mid-range. Of the three baskets the Wolverines did make while their lead dwindled away, two were layups that developed from cycling the ball down low.
Whether Michigan realized it or not, it had the answer to its problem in sophomore forward Moritz Wagner’s play to open the second half. The Hokies strung together a 12-6 run in the opening 4:07 of the frame and without Wagner, it could have been even uglier.
The stretch in favor of Virginia Tech began after the Wolverines missed four straight jumpers to open the half. Michigan’s defense was forcing fewer turnovers, and it had forwards Mark Donnal and DJ Wilson each sitting on the bench with three fouls. This time, though, Michigan didn’t try to chuck up jump shots until something went right.
Instead, it fed the ball to its big man. And he answered the call to action.
Wagner scored Michigan’s only three baskets until the 13:47 mark and he did so however he pleased. He took a defender off the dribble from the perimeter, flashed polished moves working in the post and knocked down a jumper to go with it.
“It was a conscious effort, I would say,” Robinson said. “Mo’s a tough player to guard inside. I think we’ve got to utilize him more moving forward. And I think he definitely showed his capabilities tonight — or a glimpse of it — and I’m sure you’ll see it a lot more moving forward.”
But as Virginia Tech’s second run late in the half grew larger and larger, the Wolverines resorted to their old ways. The Hokies went with a small lineup to close the gap and Michigan could have made them pay for it.
Instead, the jump shots kept clanging off the rim on one end, the basket got a little bigger on the other, and before they knew it, the Wolverines had squandered what was once a 15-point lead.