MADISON — An ugly performance for the Michigan men’s basketball team turned uglier after the final buzzer sounded Sunday afternoon.
After Michigan (14-11 overall, 8-7 Big Ten) fell to No. 15 Wisconsin (21-5, 12-4), 77-63, the postgame handshake line morphed into a physical altercation. Several Wolverines engaged in the scuffle and Michigan coach Juwan Howard threw a punch at a Wisconsin assistant coach.
After the game Howard seemed prepared to suffer the consequences of his actions, although he did not utter an apology:
“I respect whatever the Big Ten decision that they make,” Howard said. “It’s up to them and I will respect whatever decision they end up making.”
Frustrations boiled over for Howard, perturbed that Wisconsin coach Greg Gard took a timeout with 15 seconds left in a game that was a foregone conclusion. But the punches also came after a lamentable second half performance for the Wolverines, who saw a tied game at halftime turn into a blowout loss.
The first half played out as a tug-of-war, with neither team able to drag itself towards a win. Playing at a snail’s pace, both teams grinded through possessions, not finding many open buckets or chances to run in transition. The teams combined for just one three pointer, further adding to the ugly offensive pace.
Instead, the main battle transpired in the paint. The Wolverines leaned on sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, who scored 15 of their 31 first half points. The Badgers refused to commit to double teams and Dickinson took advantage, constantly flipping hook shots toward the rim. But, Wisconsin challenged Michigan’s interior defense with similar success, equalling the Wolverines’ 31 points with 22 coming inside the paint.
Neither team could find any separation at the halfway point.
Michigan appeared to break the seal on its rim to start the second half, as it raced out to 7-0 run and went up 38-33. Instead, the quick offensive spurt proved to be a mirage. Empty offensive possessions piled up — including a plethora of missed threes — and an instant lead in the second half turned into a growing deficit.
“I think a lot of our shots were good shots,” Dickinson said. “They just happened not to go in. But when you stop shooting, that shows a lack of confidence in yourself. And that’s the worst thing that can happen in basketball is when you don’t have confidence in yourself.”
Suddenly trailing with less than twelve minutes to go, the offense looked to break out from its slog and prevent the game from completely unraveling. But there was no solace on that end of the floor. Offensive fouls, blocked shots and 3-point attempts clanging off the rim ultimately spelled doom for the Wolverines. A 38-33 lead had turned into an astonishing 56-41 deficit.
“We just had some mental lapses on defense,” graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones said. “I think that was a big thing for us. And (Badgers’ guard) Johnny Davis hit some tough shots and they just kind of fed off that.”
The Wolverines had no answer for Davis, who amassed 23 points on 11-for-16 shooting. The offense completely disappeared, especially Dickinson, who scored just six points in the final 20 minutes after his scorching start. Michigan as a team shot an atrocious 4-for-25 from beyond the arc and was never able to cut into the lead once it fell behind — trailing by double digits for a majority of the second half.
An abysmal second half showing caused a game within reach for the Wolverines to completely slip away. The forgettable result, though, didn’t kill Michigan’s postseason hopes.
But the actions that followed postgame will long be remembered. The fight creates a number of problems — and almost certainly some suspensions — that will make what’s been a difficult season for the Wolverines that much harder to navigate as the finish line nears.