Isaiah Livers was giving out high-fives courtside.
Moments earlier, the junior forward — in his first game back since re-injuring his groin against Illinois two weeks ago — had supplied the final nail in Michigan State’s coffin. Showing no signs of his former impediment, Livers rose up and swatted Aaron Henry’s layup attempt off the backboard and into Wolverine hands.
Now, with just 1:42 remaining, his team up by nine and freshman forward Franz Wagner at the foul line, he could bask in the triumph — a 77-68 win over the Spartans.
“It felt good,” Livers said. “It honestly didn’t matter who we were playing. Whether we were playing non-conference, low-major, a non-D1 team, I was just excited about getting back out there. All the work you put in, the love you have your teammates and the game of basketball, I just wanted to get back.”
While Michigan was able to weather Livers’ most-recent absence, going 2-1, his return was a welcomed sign for a team that lost by 18 in East Lansing last month.
He missed his first two shots — both from beyond the arc — but settled into the game on the defensive end rather quickly. A block and steal within the first three minutes was an early indication that he was up for the challenge. Gradually, that effort paid off on the other end of the floor too, knocking down two 3-pointers and a pair of free throws in the first half.
“I was proud of the way he came out and competed,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “There were some possessions out there where it was tough for us to score and (Isaiah) came up big and made some clutch shots. Defensively, he was very active with his length in protecting the basket. It was good that we had opportunities we had to switch ball screens and he was able to keep a man in front of him.”
Even though Livers tweaked his groin on a dunk attempt against the Illini, he showed no apprehension in attacking the rim against the Spartans. Just 12 minutes into the game, he went right at Michigan State’s Malik Hall for an attempted slam, landing harder than most Wolverines’ fans would’ve liked.
“I’m still going to attack with a lot of force, go up and finish, do what I do,” Livers said with a smirk. “I know I said I wasn’t going to try to dunk but I definitely tried in the first half and got fouled. But I let go of the rim so there was no tragedy there.”
Livers played 18 minutes in the first half and 31 in total, second to only Wagner. Over the past few weeks, it was clear Howard and his staff weren’t going to rush Livers back too soon, regardless of which direction the Wolverines were trending. But, when he was ready to go, they weren’t going to hold him back at all either.
“Not with coach Howard,” Livers said. “He’s a winner man. And I don’t even believe in that because you go out there, you’re just giving half, you come out and you’re like a liability out there. I like to go out there, zero to 100. I can’t play 75 percent. I told coach Howard this, too, and he agreed with me. He said ‘Go out there and if you’re tired, tug that jersey.’ ”
Livers’ contribution went well beyond his 14 points and four boards though. With his return, Michigan got back another floor general. In the Wolverines’ last matchup against the Spartans, they gave up 21 points in transition. This time they gave up just six. Livers’ guidance on defense was a big reason why.
“The best thing I can do is direct traffic,” Livers said. “We have young guys that as they sprint back they don’t know what to do. I’m already back, talking, just pointing and directing them. ‘Go to that area, I’ll go to this area, go up there and guard the ball.’ Just little things like that can help. I think we need more of that.”
Beating the Spartans now gives Michigan yet another opportunity to gain some momentum as it heads into the final weeks of the regular season. Getting Livers back healthy almost felt like a win in and of itself.
While they’ve scraped by just enough without him, it goes without saying that the Wolverines are at their best when he’s available. Saturday proved that once again.
“(Isaiah) is a talent, it’s that simple,” Howard said. “We missed him a lot. We missed having another guy who can make shots and has a high basketball-IQ that knows how to make plays.”