MADISON — For the better part of three months, the Michigan men’s basketball team has strolled to wins with minimal barriers along the way. With the exception of a 62-60 win over Northwestern six weeks ago, each of its 17 victories had come by at least eight points.
So when the Kohl Center crowd rose to its feet as Wolverines coach John Beilein signaled for a timeout with four minutes to play and his team trailing by six, Michigan had no answers.
“We just needed to capitalize,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “But we also haven’t been in a situation like this too many times.”
Instead of capitalizing, the Wolverines came out of the timeout and allowed the same type of basket they had all night — a hook shot by Wisconsin center Ethan Happ, his 21st and 22nd points of the afternoon that sent the Badgers on their way to a 64-54 win.
On the ensuing possession, junior point guard Zavier Simpson uncharacteristically drove into traffic and saw his layup attempt stuffed at the rim. But when junior center Jon Teske hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to three a minute later, Michigan had its opportunity to regain control of the game.
After a free throw from Happ, Teske — perhaps buoyed by his previous make, but perhaps rattled by the unfamiliar situation — let loose again from deep. Only this time, there was a man in his face and the shot barely scraped the front of the rim. A D’Mitrik Trice miss afforded Michigan another opportunity to trim the deficit but shot selection again stifled the Wolverines on their next trip down the floor.
Poole took a dribble handoff beyond the arc with 20 seconds on the shot clock as two defenders closed in on him. Rather than assessing his options as he had done in a familiar 11-point first half, he dribbled into traffic and hoisted a three that never had a chance of finding bottom.
“I think it was only the Northwestern game was the game that we went down to the wire like this,” Poole said. “You know, which shots you can take, which shots you can’t, clock management. It’s just little things like that that you won’t be able to see in the game if you win by eight, nine, 10.”
Added Beilein: “Those are not good plays down the stretch. If we’d already gone through that once, it might have helped us today.”
Even after the Badgers extended their lead to six on the next possession, Michigan wasn’t quite dead yet. Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers hit a three on the next possession to bring the Wolverines within three, but it remained uncharted territory.
So, faced with a situation that he hasn’t been in for nine months, Beilein called for freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis to intentionally foul Happ — a 49 percent free throw shooter — off the ball.
The only problem? The rule book.
A flagrant 1 personal foul is a personal foul that is deemed excessive in nature… Examples include but are not limited to: … Fouling a player who is clearly away from the ball who is not directly involved with the play.
The Wolverines had not had to overcome a late deficit all season, and it showed. The basketball execution was there — Brazdeikis did exactly as he was told, Livers’ three was a beautiful step-back jumper and Simpson forced a pair of steals down the stretch. The decision making — on and off the court — was not.
“One of the big things is we haven’t had the opportunity to grow from losses,” Beilein said. “And we needed that growth today, because we weren’t as good as we’d like to be.”
On the other sideline, Wisconsin had already lost a trio of Big Ten games by a combined 15 points. Down the stretch, their motto was “unfazed.”
“It’s strictly about mentality,” said Badgers coach Greg Gard. “And the mentality to fight through adversity. You’re gonna have some days when things don’t go well, how do you respond?”
The problem for Michigan? The last time it had one of those days was in April.