After its season reached a nadir in a lethargic loss to Penn State on Tuesday, Michigan came into Saturday’s game against No. 24 Maryland in desperate need of a cure for a month’s worth of offensive struggles.
So before tip-off, Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks sat down to discuss what needed to go differently. The two eventually concluded that, to avoid a repeat of Tuesday — when the Nittany Lions’ first basket came just five seconds into the game — the emphasis needed to be on a strong start. That basket, they realized, had set the tone for the entire first half. By the time the Wolverines righted the ship, they were down 16.
On Saturday afternoon though, it took nearly three minutes for the Terrapins to score. Before they could do so for a second time, Michigan’s lead had ballooned to 14-2. Maryland (19-7 overall, 10-5 Big Ten) eventually reversed course, but — much like for the Wolverines on Tuesday — it was too late, as Michigan (23-3, 12-3) held on to win, 65-52.
“We built too big of a hole,” said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “Against a great team, you can’t do that.”
When Livers caught a pass in transition and slammed over Anthony Cowan with 7:11 to play in the first half, the game appeared over. Michigan had already raced out to a 23-8 lead, displaying the type of fireworks that have evaded it for much of the past two months.
“Everybody was really focused, everybody was locked in, everybody was active,” Livers said. “We had six shutouts — that’s three stops in a row — in the first half, so that’s really good for us.”
The early barrage came on the back of jump shooting and transition baskets — two areas in which Michigan has struggled in recent weeks. But then, the struggles of the Wolverines’ midseason lull resurfaced.
After a Livers three midway through the first half, they didn’t hit another one until four minutes after the break. The transition offense, too, dried up after that opening spell.
“We created 13 turnovers in the first half,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We stopped creating turnovers so now we had to dial up plays and get more into a half-court thing.”
As Michigan stagnated, the Terrapins found their groove. Just four minutes after Livers’ dunk put the exclamation mark on a dominant opening stretch, back-to-back 3-pointers from Aaron Wiggins cut the Wolverines’ lead to a precarious nine-point advantage.
For the first nine minutes of the second half, that’s where it remained, fluctuating between six and 11 — Michigan threatening to pull away and Maryland threatening to pull even, but neither coming to fruition. But when the Terrapins’ Serrel Smith Jr. buried a pull-up triple to cut the deficit to three with 10:21 to play, it seemed the latter had come to pass.
The Wolverines — just an hour after their most dominant stretch in months — were en route to their most crushing loss of the season.
Then, as he so often does, sophomore guard Jordan Poole provided a much-needed spark, darting into the lane in transition and eurostepping past a helpless Maryland defender to extend Michigan’s lead back to two possessions. On the next trip down the floor, junior guard Zavier Simpson hit just the Wolverines’ second three of the half, sending the Crisler Center into a frenzy and re-establishing Michigan’s eight-point advantage.
“Any three that we hit in the second (half) — whether it was (freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis)’, (Jon Teske)’s, Zavier’s — they were just huge to get us back,” Beilein said. “It was going south pretty quick. We couldn’t get anything to go and they were getting really easy shots.”
The Terrapins never got the deficit back within one possession, giving Michigan a win that may look easy on the statsheet but was, in reality, anything but.
After Tuesday’s episode in State College, the Wolverines will take it.