Five days after falling in a close battle against the third-ranked team in the country, the Michigan men’s basketball team faced an opportunity for redemption and a chance to show that going toe-to-toe with Virginia wasn’t a fluke, but this team’s reality.
Despite a tight first half though, the Wolverines (5-3 overall) faced a cruel reality check as they fell to No. 19 Kentucky (6-2), 73-69, at the Basketball Hall of Fame London Showcase Sunday afternoon.
“(This was) a great experience for our guys to get a chance to showcase their basketball skills and show it to the world,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters Sunday. “Because this is a great opportunity, and basketball has opened so many doors … for my players to get a chance to see the world.”
Although the opportunity alone gave the Wolverines an excellent chance to grow, after traveling thousands of miles they wanted more than just an experience — they wanted a quality win.
For the majority of the first half, that goal seemed realistic. Michigan and the Wildcats went back and forth, with sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin and graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn carrying the Wolverines offense in the early going. Bufkin’s nine points, three assists and relentless defense paired with Llewellyn’s playmaking abilities and athleticism kept the Wolverines close as they entered halftime down one.
Coming off a game where Michigan displayed second half complacency, the Wolverines faced two paths. They could mimic Tuesday’s performance, or they could step up and prevent history from repeating itself.
And despite hanging with the Wildcats, Michigan ultimately failed to take that second path, slowly collapsing in the final minutes of play.
Kentucky came out of the break firing, with guard Cason Wallace hitting three shots and racking up eight points to put the Wolverines in a seven point deficit. After its slow second half start, Michigan called a timeout just five minutes into play.
Rejuvenated, the Wolverines kick-started an 8-0 run. Led by Bufkin’s aggressive playstyle and junior center Hunter Dickinson’s prowess in the paint, it showed Michigan’s ability to bounce back from its poor start.
As the Wolverines looked to stay afloat in the game, Dickinson served as their lifeline. Matched up against forward Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning AP Player of the Year, Dickinson struggled to find consistent success in the first half. But in the second half, he found his groove, showing that Big Ben isn’t the only tower in London en route to a 23-point performance.
“(Hunter’s) a great teammate, and he accepts coaching,” Howard said. “Hunter’s success is built on the fact that the guy is passionate about … wearing that maize and blue.”
But beyond Dickinson, Michigan failed to find consistency from additional sources. As the Wolverines clawed to stay in the game, that secondary source of offense never materialized.
With just over a minute left to play, Kentucky forward Jacob Toppin drove into the paint and put up a reverse layup, which Dickinson neutralized with a commanding block. But Toppin snatched the rebound and passed out to Wallace, who nailed a dagger three to make it a two possession game. Dickinson’s solo efforts were ultimately not enough.
Although the Wolverines didn’t collapse in the same manner that they did against Virginia, they also couldn’t find any momentum to make a run. Sloppy defense enabled Kentucky to find open looks late in the shot clock, adding to its lead while taking time off the clock. Although Michigan remained in reach of a comeback, it never found a shot to turn things around. The Wildcats’ consistency ultimately proved too much, and subsequently, Michigan failed to avenge itself from Tuesday’s clash.
“Unfortunately, in the game of basketball, sometimes things just don’t go your way,” Howard said after Tuesday’s loss to Virginia.
Just like five days prior, that was Michigan’s reality. Once again, the Wolverines proved they can compete against top tier teams, but that they aren’t yet one of them. Now, Michigan has a long trip back across the pond to think of what could have been.