Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

Time and time again, the Michigan men’s basketball team has managed to push teams to the brink late in games. Hammer in hand, the Wolverines have had plenty of opportunities to smack the nail in the coffin and avoid nail-biting finishes. 

But Michigan has oftentimes tossed that hammer aside, reviving opponents late and allowing surprisingly-close finishes and gut-punching loses. 

“I think the one thing that we need to do better as a team, coaching staff included, is really hammer home the attention to detail, especially late in games,” assistant coach Howard Eisley said Jan. 21. “It’s been one or two plays that have really cost us in those (close) losses.”  

The Wolverines want to emphasize their attention to detail late, but they’ve continually missed the mark. No matter the size of the lead nor time left on the clock, Michigan has found ways to keep itself vulnerable.

Out of all the Wolverines’ late-game shortcomings, none are more glaring than their seemingly-avoidable loss at Iowa on Jan. 12. A pull-up jumper by sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin with 30 seconds left put Michigan up four points, in effect rendering the Hawkeyes lifeless.

Michigan controlled its destiny. Give up a layup, give up a 3-pointer, hell, give up an and-1 on a drive and the Wolverines would’ve still led with under 20 seconds remaining and the ball in their hands. 

But instead of using Bufkin’s shot as a dagger, Michigan’s poor late-game execution gave Iowa another chance. Bufkin’s misguided, over-aggressive closeout on a desperation 3-pointer with 20 seconds left turned into a phantom four-point play to tie the game. 

That meant no game-icing free throw opportunities after intentional fouls. No dribbling out the clock. And eventually, no Quad-1 win in Iowa City — the Hawkeyes surged past Michigan in overtime, another indictment of its end-of-game flaws.  

“We know we’re a good team, and we just understand that we have to just execute down the stretch and that’s what decides these games,” freshman wing Jett Howard said after the Iowa loss. “Overall I feel like we’ll make adjustments, like we always do.”

Howard’s assurances on upcoming adjustments, however, have yet to materialize. Despite the Wolverines winning two out of three games since losing to the Hawkeyes, the final minutes of both of those wins — while not proving costly — point to continued lapses in situational awareness late in games. 

In its win over Northwestern, Michigan’s 11-point lead with less than two minutes left quickly dwindled to five, handing the Wildcats a chance to bring the game within a possession on multiple occasions. Poor shot-clock management gave Northwestern the ball with added time, while the Wolverines had serious trouble breaking the Wildcats’ backcourt press. 

Against Minnesota on Sunday, those late-game issues continued to reverberate. After struggling to build separation for most of the game, Michigan built a nine-point lead with three minutes left. 

From there, another chance to seamlessly put an opponent away didn’t go so smoothly. 

Defensive lapses and missed free throws put the Golden Gophers right back in the game, and Minnesota brought it within three with 30 seconds left. Like Northwestern, the Wolverines eventually got away with their late sloppiness, but it turned a cookie-cutter finish into a cut-throat one — again.  

“Even (in) some of our wins, we’ve had opportunities to extend leads or really put ourselves in games that shouldn’t have been close,” Eisley said. “… We have to really pay more attention to details, and with such a young group, it’s really challenging to do that all the time, and I think that’s the area we need to grow in.”

When addressing late-game situations ahead of facing the Wildcats, associate head coach Phil Martelli pointed toward a need for better communication on defense while they figure out the “feel” on the offensive side, something that comes with more and more reps. 

But whether it’s knowing the “feel” better and making instinctual plays down the stretch, being more connected as a unit late or simply gaining more experience, Michigan’s margin for error is only tightening as it looks to build its resume.

The Wolverines need to figure out how to close out games consistently.

Or else, their failure to put nails in opponents’ coffins could become the nail in their own.