The ball started in Lamar Stevens’ hands, as the Michigan men’s basketball team expected.
The senior forward has been a key cog of Penn State’s offense since he stepped foot on campus in 2016. So when the first possession of the Wolverines’ 72-63 loss to the Nittany Lions (14-5 overall, 4-4 Big Ten) ended with Stevens posting up, nobody was surprised.
With sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. at his back, he faked toward the paint, spun the other way and knocked down a fadeaway from baseline.
On the next possession, he sank a three from the wing. The one after that ended with him converting a mid-range jumper. Before long, Stevens’ hot start put Michigan (11-7, 2-5) in a 9-2 hole, forcing coach Juwan Howard to burn a timeout.
And as his team trotted back to the bench, what Howard saw was a fitting prelude to the rest of the night.
“I saw some guys had a little doubt in their eyes,” Howard said. “And that’s not how we have to approach games, especially when we’re playing at home.”
When Stevens exited the floor shortly after, the Wolverines made the most of the opportunity. As Stevens watched from the bench, junior guard Eli Brooks knocked down a corner three that sparked an 11-0 run. He added another five points during the spurt.
Stevens sat for fewer than two minutes, but it was enough to give Michigan the lead. Shortly after he checked back into the game, though, Penn State scored 14 unanswered points over a six-minute stretch that saw the Wolverines commit five turnovers.
And in a matter of minutes, a game that had already been flipped on its head took another sharp turn.
Once again, Michigan had plenty of opportunities to retake the reins after it fell behind. The Wolverines couldn’t cash in this time, missing 14 of their 19 shots away from the rim in the first half.
Between Michigan’s shooting woes and Stevens’ lack thereof, Penn State took a 37-28 lead into halftime.
The second half began with a similar script. Coming out of the locker room, Penn State went on a 7-3 run as the Wolverines missed seven of their first eight field goal attempts. While Michigan’s open looks repeatedly clanked off the back iron, the Nittany Lions extended their lead to as much as 15.
Through it all, the Wolverines’ defense was as quiet as it’s been all season.
“It’s too late in the season for, you know, I have to beg our guys to communicate on defense,” Howard said. “Not just on the defensive end, on the offensive end, too. It just so happens it’s a lost art in the game and we have to bring it back.
“Yes, I’m old school, but in order for us to forge ahead and move forward and improve, communication has to be a part of the process. That is surprising that some of our guys don’t like talking on defense. … There’s a lot of guessing going on, and I just don’t understand it.”
With Michigan in dire need of a spark, freshman wing Franz Wagner jumped in front of a pass along the perimeter. As he chased the deflected ball in transition for what looked like an imminent open dunk, a Nittany Lion defender grabbed hold of his arm.
The blaring sound of a whistle pierced through Crisler Center, and the unconventional intentional foul call ensued. Wagner sank both free throws, which proved to be the first of eight unanswered points for the Wolverines — a stretch that trimmed the deficit to just five.
But as they began closing the gap, it was an unlikely candidate who kept them at bay. After playing only three minutes in the first half, Penn State coach Pat Chambers called on fifth-year guard Curtis Jones Jr. — who entered Wednesday night averaging 6.8 points on 35.7-percent shooting — for 15 second-half minutes.
As Jones prepared to check in, his coach delivered a message.
“These moments are made for seniors,” Chambers recalled telling him. “It’s your time.”
Jones answered the call, knocking down seven of his nine second-half shots in an 18-point explosion against subpar defense.
“If your hand is down versus a shooter — for example, Curtis Jones, who was just lining it up and shot it right in our face — that’s unacceptable,” Howard said. “You have to own it. You have to be able to do your job.”
Against Penn State, the Wolverines didn’t own it, nor did they do their job.
And for that, they dropped a game on their own floor in a conference where road wins are a rarity, putting them even further behind the eight ball.