It was deja vu all over again for the Wolverines.
A stodgy first half. A second half spurt. A collapse at the end. A three to tie it.
Against Maryland, guard Kevin Huerter drained a cold-blooded three to tie the game, with the Terrapins smelling a potential upset bid. On that night, the Wolverines executed their last-second play to perfection, finding a charging Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman as he bullied his way to the hoop. On that night, Abdur-Rahkman drained both free throws to escape with a win.
On Saturday, Abdur-Rahkman caught the inbounds pass with 3.3 seconds left, found a wall of Minnesota defenders, and hurled up something resembling an off-balance three. Needless to say it didn’t fall.
But once again, Michigan (19-6 overall, 8-4 Big Ten) escaped with a win in a game filled with self-inflicted wounds. Once again, Abdur-Rahkman would be the hero.
With 3.8 seconds left in overtime, Abdur-Rahkman made up for his end-of-regulation miss with the decisive moment of the game, as he attacked the hoop, spun to his left and made the layup with a foul.
“I just looked up the floor and surveyed the floor, and saw there was nobody under the basket,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “So I knew that if I could get downhill there woundn’t be a help defender. Once he cut me off I just thought I should probably spin.”
Once again, the Wolverines pulled a rabbit out of their hat in a game they tried desperately to lose, topping Minnesota (14-11, 3-9), 76-73, in a bewildering back and forth slugfest.
For much of the night, though, Gophers’ guard Isaiah Washington imposed his will. Washington came into the game averaging 6.9 points per game on 32 percent from the field, and left Crisler with a 26-point outburst on 11-of-16 from the field.
While Michigan struggled to contain Minnesota’s guards on one end, the offensive struggles remained an equally persistent problem for a team that has taken a propensity to slow starts. The Wolverines shot just 34 percent from the field and 29 percent from three in the first half, heading to the locker room down 34-32.
Michigan has now shot 37 percent or below and scored 32 points or fewer in five of its last six first halves, heading to the locker room down 34-32.
And as bad as things may have gotten from the field, the most alarming statistic came at the free-throw line. Michigan shot just 12-for-28 on the night.
“It’s all mental,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “You get up there to the line, people think too much. You get a clear head. We literally do this everyday and guys shoot good percentages in practices.”
Added Beilein: “It’s not mechanical right now. They’ve got to go up there with some confidence. We’ve got to get them right. That’s my job.”
Yet as things remained grim the Wolverines somehow found a way to stay competitive.
In need of a pick-me-up in the second half, the Wolverines turned to their star center to turn the tide. First, Wagner drained a 3-pointers from the corner to close the gap to two points. Then, he corraled two consecutive offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive. The majority of second-half offensive possessions centered around pick-and-roll action with the German center. He scored 16 points on the day.
And, perhaps most impressively, Wagner stared one of his most physical one-on-one matchups of the season in the face and overpowered him.
Minnesota forward Jordan Murphy came into the game averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds per game, fourth in the nation in the latter category. Not only did Wagner dazzle offensively, but he topped Murphy on the boards — with 10 to Murphy’s 6 — and held the Gophers’ star in check offensively. Wagner called that “the key to winning this game.” Murphy would later foul out in overtime with just 12 points.
Despite Murphy’s struggles, though, Washington and Mason continued to wreak havoc on Michigan’s defense. They combined to score 48 of the Gophers’ 73 points, with an array of offensive moves and tough shots. The guard tandem was effective enough to force the Wolverines into a zone midway through the second half, a rarity in assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s man-centric defense. It was Yaklich who decided the zone would be the only way to combat the dynamic duo.
“That was Luke Yaklich all the way,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We felt, when you get a guy like Mason and Washington — they were 15-for-22 at that time — they have what we need to go recruit: guys who can make tough twos. They were making tough twos. They were making them. We said, ‘Well, the only way we can possibly stop this is change what we’re doing.’ ”
As the clock began to wind down, Michigan appeared headed toward a close victory. Up three points with 20 seconds left in regulation, Robinson caught the ball in the corner, as two defenders tried to wrestle the ball from him. While a foul appeared immiment, the referees instead blew the whistle for a travel, handing possession back to Minnesota with one last chance.
“I have no idea what happened on that play,” Beilein said. There’s a cylinder when you’re pivoting, they can’t be in your cylinder. If he walked I’m sure it must have been blatant for the officials. If not, that’s really a bad call.”
Mason took that break and snatched the momentum right back.
With just five seconds left, Mason drained a 3-pointer to send it to overtime after Michigan missed a switch on a screen.
In overtime, the free-throw disaster continue to plague the Wolverines. Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson missed two key attempts to potentially extend the lead to three. Washington answered on the other end, making two free throw to take back the lead. On the next possession, Matthews barely clanked home the first and missed the next.
Tied at 71. One minute left.
As the teams traded buckets in the final minute, Abdur-Rahkman got his chance at redemption with nine seconds left. For a senior just starting to develop into the go-to option late in games, every opportunity is a work in progress. He made the most of this one.
“I wouldn’t say that I’ve been in that position before,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “But I’ve been in games, tight games, NCAA Tournament and stuff like that. It’s definitely something that’s developing. I’ve just got to continue to grow.”
It was an emphatic finish to a most uneven performance. There was as much exasperation as enthusiasm after the game.
“I’ll take the W,” Beilein muttered as he walked off the podium after his postgame press conference. “I need a nap.”