CHICAGO — After a disappointing regular season, the Michigan men’s basketball team entered the Big Ten Tournament seeking redemption. But, following the blueprint they built in the regular season, the Wolverines couldn’t hold on to early-game success.
Michigan (17-15 overall, 11-10 Big Ten) fell to Rutgers (19-13, 11-10), 62-50, and the Wolverines were left reeling with the same taste of defeat that has become all too familiar this season.
“I would say “good afternoon” to everyone,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “But unfortunately, it wasn’t a good afternoon for us. We came up on the other end, where we lost, and it was a tough loss for this team, for this coaching staff, and also for the university.”
In a first half highlighted by both teams’ defense, junior center Hunter Dickinson served as a lifeline for the struggling Michigan offense, working Scarlet Knights center Clifford Omoruyi in the post en route to 13 first-half points. The Wolverines’ own defense shined too, minimizing the effect of their own offensive struggles and holding Rutgers to an abysmal 10-for-34 from the field in the first half.
Coming out of the break, the gritty defensive battle from the first half looked likely to continue. Rutgers continued to hound Michigan on the defensive end, forcing seven of its 14 turnovers in the second half. The Wolverines’ defense continued to find success too, though, limiting Scarlet Knight success on the offensive end.
But while Michigan’s cohesive defensive effort continued early in the second half, its offense stagnated. And Dickinson, once a lifeline on offense, no longer aided Michigan with a reliable option to fallback on. With both offenses sputtering, the game radiated the energy of a classic postseason grindfest.
But in the blink of an eye, everything opened up for Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights’ surge started on an unassuming trip to the charity stripe for guard Derek Simpson midway through the half. With the Wolverines trailing by just two, freshman wing Jett Howard fouled Simpson on a shot attempt. Simpson calmly stepped to the line and sunk the first. When the second went up, Simpson stood watching before flashing to the rim after realizing it missed. No Michigan player boxed him out. The lane stood gaping. Simpson grabbed his miss and layed it in. Just like that, Rutgers’ game-clinching 12-0 run started.
“It is a little deflating,” Dickinson said of the sequence. “Just miscommunication between us, the guys out there. That’s something we practice a lot. Unacceptable. The coaches emphasize it in practice and in timeouts of one guy declaring the shooter, one guy pinching in. So that’s just on the players on the floor to do a better job of communicating to one another.”
Over the course of the next four minutes, the Scarlet Knights turned a two-point lead into an 11-point lead, leaving the Wolverines spiraling out of control. As Rutgers guard Cam Spencer connected on the 3-pointer that extended the Scarlet Knight lead to 11, he cocked his head to the side, flashed a smile and sauntered down the floor with a swagger that screamed ‘this game is over’.
“It felt good,” Spencer said. “Honestly I was going a little crazy and then remembered to thank Derek for a good pass. He got me open there. He got downhill and just kind of called for the ball and was able to knock it down. My thought was just get a stop now.”
And on the next possession, Rutgers continued its defensive clinic, getting that stop. A block from Omoruyi highlighted the stand before getting passed ahead to Simpson in transition. Simpson glided to the rim, throwing down a massive two-handed slam — extending the Scarlet Knight lead to 13 with six minutes left — and hammering the final nail into Michigan’s coffin.
The Wolverines never showed any sign of recovering. Trip after trip, Michigan came up empty on the offensive end, finishing the half with an abysmal 4-for-21 shooting line.
Just like in the regular season, the Wolverines fell apart down the stretch.
And just like in the regular season, Michigan’s quest for redemption in the Big Ten Tournament ended in disappointment.