For the second time in as many games at Crisler Center, the game still hung in the balance as the clock wound down.
After squandering a two-point lead with less than a minute to play against Illinois last week, the Michigan men’s basketball team (13-9 overall, 4-7 Big Ten) appeared to find its footing. A long-awaited road win at Nebraska and a successful dispatching of Rutgers in New York made the loss to the Fighting Illini look like an inflection point in hindsight. A lesson learned.
But when the Wolverines found themselves in a nearly identical setting against Ohio State on Tuesday night, there was no sign of progress. After junior guard Eli Brooks gave Michigan a two-point lead with 1:21 left to play, the Buckeyes (15-7, 5-6) closed the game on a 7-2 run, ultimately escaping with a 61-58 win.
“We were in the game the whole game,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said. “We didn’t play exceptionally well. Sometimes that just happens, but you’ve got to be able to still win the game, especially at home. It hurts a lot.”
Especially at home. Those words brought the most strain to his voice.
In a Big Ten season defined by conference-wide road struggles, the Wolverines have now dropped their last three games in Ann Arbor. All of them were there for the taking. In the only game Michigan didn’t hold a late lead, it was down by just five points with four minutes to play against Penn State on Jan. 22.
The most recent two, however, have each come at the buzzer. Against Illinois, the Wolverines missed five consecutive free throws down the stretch in what could’ve been a win over the conference’s hottest team, culminating in Ayo Dosunmu’s eventual game-winning pull-up jumper.
Tuesday proved to be a different story, though, as Michigan was the team with the ball as the clock ticked down in a one-possession game.
With over 39 grueling minutes of physical basketball already in the books, Juwan Howard huddled the Wolverines around their bench. He spent back-to-back timeouts furiously scribbling and pointing, whiteboard and marker in hand the entire time.
The result was an open look for Brooks from the left corner. A look that Brooks had buried from the opposite corner less than two minutes prior. A look that would’ve tied the game.
A look that ultimately clanked off the back iron.
Over the last few weeks, Ann Arbor is where the Wolverines have struggled most. From knowing the arena lighting and practicing on the rims daily, there are a number of advantages to playing at home. Yet during this three-game losing streak at Crisler Center, Michigan hasn’t shot above 40 percent in a single game.
And even though open looks aren’t falling, Howard’s unwavering green light persists.
At this point, it’s difficult for anyone in the Wolverines’ locker room to put a finger on the root of the problem. Slumped against the wall in a scrum of reporters following the game, Wagner tried to gauge the situation.
“I think we got some really good shots that didn’t go in,” Wagner said. “We got some good shots at the rim we didn’t make. Lack of focus maybe — I don’t know. Stuff like that hurts in these types of games. You need every point.”
With its last two losses coming at the final buzzer, Michigan has learned that final lesson the hard way.