ORLANDO, Fla. — After 12 days off, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s rust was evident.
On the offensive end, it went stretches without making a basket. On the defensive end, it surrendered 13-0 runs and squandered big leads. For the Wolverines, that meant an 85-71 loss to the University of Central Florida (9-2 overall, 1-0 AAC).
“You never can play a mistake free basketball game,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Unfortunately, the mistakes that happen are times when you’re trying to either make a run back in the game or get a defensive stop. That’s where a mistake happens and we will clean it up. I trust we will get better with time.”
At first, things looked up for the Wolverines. Fifth-year guard Eli Brooks got Michigan going when he knocked down two 3-pointers. However, each time the Wolverines scored, the Knights quickly answered on the other end.
Michigan managed to carve out a lead on the back of Moussa Diabate. A 5-0 run saw the freshman big man using his height to back down defenders in the paint while also capitalizing on his improved mid-range game. UCF guard Darian Green Jr. stopped the run by answering with a three that sparked the Knights — something that was commonplace throughout the game.
The Wolverines held the lead throughout the first half in large part due to them dominating UCF on the glass, out-rebounding the Knights 25-18. Although a tall team, UCF was only able to contain sophomore center Hunter Dickinson for so long. Midway through the first half, Dickinson backed down four defenders en route to a dunk that put Michigan up seven and silenced the crowd.
The momentum swung back and forth in the half, with the Knights carrying it into the buzzer despite Michigan holding on to a 35-31 lead.
“They were comfortable from the start,” Brooks said of UCF’s shooting. “When they see the ball go in early, it’s difficult to wear people down.”
Coming out of the half, graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones quickly hit a three. After smooth ball movement and an assist from Brooks, Dickinson dunked over a pair of Knights defenders. On the ensuing inbound pass, Jones stole the ball, which led to a Brooks put-back. Michigan’s lead ballooned to 12 points and the Wolverines looked to be in full control, rust completely shaken from the offense.
But that didn’t last long.
Five minutes into the second half, UCF’s defense turned into offense when a Brooks 3-pointer was blocked and immediately ran back the other way for a dunk. On the ensuing inbound pass, the Knights stole the ball and made an easy layup. On the next UCF possession, Michigan committed a foul, giving the Knights a 3-point play. This all occurred in the midst of a 13-0 UCF run. The Knights’ crowd got louder and louder as the run grew and UCF regained the lead.
“As a whole we lost our composure,” Jones said. “Let them hit shots and the crowd noise gets loud. We start making a lot of mental mistakes that we usually don’t make. So watch those mistakes compound each other. Now you have the other team hitting shots. It’ll be hard to beat those guys.”
The Wolverines’ lead was squandered and they found themselves trailing for the first time since the beginning of the first half. Michigan just didn’t have the same energy in the second half as they did in the first.
“We got to be a two half team,” Jones said. “The first half I think we did a pretty good job … Second half came around, we weren’t contesting as much. We started losing assignments, weren’t rotating and stopped talking as a team … I felt like me, Hunter and Eli have to do a better job of coaching the other guys that haven’t been in that type of environment before.”
The offensive onslaught from UCF didn’t end. Every trip down the floor for the Knights was the same clinic in shot-making. UCF shot 18-for-25 from the floor and 8-for-8 from beyond the arc in the second half. Michigan simply couldn’t match the Knights’ energy and the game started to slip away.
“We just have to get better in our conditioning,” Jones said. “When we get tired is when we make mental mistakes. It’s all about conditioning and staying strong mentally and just playing together as a team.”
The Knights hit another three with 3:30 remaining to stretch their lead to nine. A Michigan comeback appeared to have some life when freshman guard Kobe Bufkin made a three, but any hope was quickly snuffed out by two more 3-pointers at the other end, icing the game
Despite having four players score in double figures, Michigan’s defense couldn’t overcome the Knights’ shooting. Green and UCF guard Brandon Mahan’s, in particular, gave the Wolverines fits — the pair combined for 53 points and seemingly scored at will.
“There’s always growing pains throughout the season,” Howard said. “There’s always learning moments throughout the season, whether you win or lose and unfortunately tonight we were just on the other end.”
In the end, rust can’t explain away the faults made by Michigan’s defense throughout the contest. That responsibility falls squarely on the Wolverines’ shoulders.