INDIANAPOLIS — Regardless of the result, Juwan Howard was steadfast in his plan.
Following a 3-pointer from senior guard Chaundee Brown, the Michigan men’s basketball trailed Ohio State by just a single point with 47 seconds left. Assuming the Wolverines could get a stop on defense, Howard drew up a play in the huddle — a berth to Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament final resting on the outcome.
A stop, a score and Michigan would complete a double-digit comeback that seemed unfathomable just minutes before.
The Buckeyes’ point guard C.J. Walker obliged with the former by stepping on his own baseline and turning the ball back over to the Wolverines with 28 seconds to go. Howard, with a timeout remaining and his team riding a surge of momentum from the last few minutes, let his team go.
“I did not want to call a timeout, didn’t want to let their team get set up,” Howard said. “Teams don’t know what you’re gonna run when you have the ball in your hands for the last possession.”
Michigan started the possession in an empty set — spacing the floor on the perimeter and giving graduate point guard Mike Smith ample space to initiate the final play. As the seconds ticked away, it became clear that the Wolverines would hold for the final shot. With go-to options Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner on the bench — Livers, due to injury and Wagner, having fouled out — the ball was entirely in Smith’s hands.
Just eight seconds remained when freshman center Hunter Dickinson set a high-ball screen for Smith. Ohio State switched defenders, leaving 6-foot-7 forward Justice Sueing on Dickinson and forward E.J. Liddell on Smith. Rather than dump it down-low to Dickinson, who had scored six of Michigan’s last 11 points, Smith kept it and put up a stepback 3-pointer over Liddell’s outstretched hand. The shot richotected on the back rim with virtually no time left for an offensive rebound opportunity. The Wolverines had lost.
“We had the play, we had the ball, we had the shot, unfortunately we just missed it,” Howard said. “But I’ll take that shot any day.”
Added Dickinson: “Everybody was confident in it. If we had the opportunity to go back, I would not be hesitant at all with letting Mike shoot that next one. We were all confident in Mike. and I told him after the game, I’d let him shoot that one again if he had the chance.”
Smith is a proven scorer, having averaged 22.8 points his last season at Columbia and shooting 45.8% from 3-point range this season. He also was coming off arguably his best game in a Michigan jersey, a double-double performance against Maryland on Friday. And yet, with all that said, one can’t help but question the final play.
Howard and Michigan might have felt comfortable with Smith taking the last shot, but feeling comfortable about that shot being a stepback three seems unlikely — especially trailing by just one point. The Buckeyes had been unable to deal with Dickinson all afternoon. If given the ball on the block, there was a high chance he would’ve scored or gotten fouled. At least, a better chance than a contested 3-point attempt.
To bleed the clock down to the last possible moment leaves no second chance opportunity, no margin for error.
Howard’s belief in his players has been well-documented, and one confounding possession shouldn’t necessarily be extrapolated into something larger, but with all that hung in the balance on Saturday afternoon, it stung nonetheless.