NEW YORK CITY, NY — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman left the floor with both of his arms extended at full reach. The senior guard had just put enough pressure on center Luka Garza to force a miss, and with the Michigan basketball team tied with Iowa game in overtime, Abdur-Rahkman gave everything to ensure his team got possession.
Battling with the seven-footer, Abdur-Rakhman got two hands on the ball as the two battled for the rebound. It looked like a tie-up — until the whistle blew and the official raised his fist in the air. Abdur-Rahkman — the Wolverines’ best player of late — was called for his fifth foul. He’d have to watch the final two-plus minutes of overtime from the bench.
The call was emblematic of the afternoon for Michigan. On numerous occasions, fouls would interrupt its game plan, sending numerous Wolverines to the bench at inopportune times.
Fittingly, Abdur-Rahkman was the first significant victim of the whistle. With just over eight minutes to play in the first half, he jabbed at a driving Tyler Cook and was called for his second infraction — much to his surprise, as bounced on his toes in frustration.
Junior forward Moritz Wagner and fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson received similar fates, too. Both were called for the second fouls during the first frame — good for immediate trips to the bench in the eyes of Michigan coach John Beilein.
Three of the Wolverines’ four leading scorers — Abdur-Rakman, Wagner and Robinson — would play just 25 combined minutes in the first frame, nearly twenty minutes below the trio’s average. It showed on the scoreboard, as Michigan would enter the halftime locker room down, 40-35.
“Just the whole flow of the game was a little bit disrupted (by the fouls),” Abdur-Rakhman said.
“It sucked,” Wagner added.
The Wolverines did just that to start the second half, utilizing the players Beilein was forced to sit earlier. In an 8-0 run, Wagner either scored or assisted on all three of Michigan’s half-court sets — making the Hawkeyes pay regardless of whether the double team came.
But just as quickly as the Wolverines recaptured the lead, fouls continued to pile up. Six calls against Michigan were made before the under-16 timeout — including ones on Abdur-Rahkman and Wagner — forcing to the pair back to the pine.
“It seemed like every time I was out there, I picked up a foul,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I mean it is frustrating in the postseason getting in foul trouble. The bench stepped up in a big way today, and we needed them.”
That they certainly did. Just as Wagner picked up his fourth whistle, Robinson drilled the Wolverines’ first triple of the afternoon to give them a five-point lead with less than ten minutes to play.
But when Wagner was disqualified with his fifth foul just four minutes later, the focus shifted to another reserve — sophomore center Jon Teske. He’d only finish with three points, but Teske was up to the challenge, grabbing nine rebounds to limit Iowa in the area it dominated during the first frame.
“Foul trouble obviously early in the first half and then in the second half and guys come in and step up, it’s huge,” Beilein said. “That’s what you need this time of year, a deep bench, and I think we had that today, which was really important.”
The Wolverines would eventually blow their lead. They went just 3-for-19 from deep. Their two best players couldn’t play in crunch time. Iowa’s season was on the line. But Michigan still won.
It’s simply been the story for the Wolverines this season. They might not put on the prettiest display of basketball, but time and time again, Michigan has gutted out victories.
That’s why the Wolverines are 25-7 and are playing in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament instead of flying home on Friday.
“I think that just shows that we’re fighters, that we can roll with the punches and take what comes and roll through,” said redshirt freshman center Austin Davis. “We just rallied as a team and came through.”