INDIANAPOLIS — A smile trickled across Jace Howard’s face.
Behind that smile was a reflection of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s locker room over the past few weeks. The Wolverines’ well-documented streak of alternating wins and losses dating back to Feb. 10 had become a bit of a joke amongst the players.
When asked on Friday why Michigan would buck that trend in the Round of 32, through his grin, Howard spoke bluntly:
“We got no other choice.”
Alternating wins and losses for over a month was good enough to get the Wolverines off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament. It was good enough to advance past Colorado State in the first round. But at this point in the season, one more loss would send them home for good. As Howard put it, they had no other choice but to reverse their fortunes on Saturday against third-seeded Tennessee.
And Michigan played like it. Whenever the Volunteers took control, the Wolverines fought back. Whenever the outcome looked bleak, they had an answer. And in the end, Michigan (19-14 overall) outlasted Tennessee (27-8), 76-68.
“There wasn’t really any doubt that this team is special,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “We have a good group of guys that have the same drive, the same passion. And that’s a credit to (Michigan coach Juwan Howard), the coaching staff, finding those guys out there that you like to be around. There wasn’t a second that anybody shied away … and we’re in the Sweet Sixteen.”
Early on, it looked as though the Wolverines path to victory would be much less stressful. The Wolverines started off strong, limiting turnovers and passing out of double teams to find the open man, and they led for the majority of the first half.
But Michigan could never pull away, even though it seemed to be the better team for the first 15 minutes. With five minutes remaining in the first half, the tides began to turn. The Wolverines started to turn the ball over consistently, allowing the Volunteers to get out in transition. Five of their nine first-half turnovers came in that span, allowing Tennessee to close out the half on a 13-2 run to take a five-point lead into the locker room.
“We turned the ball over, things weren’t going our way,” sophomore forward Terrance Williams II said. “But being the most connected team is what Coach Howard talks about, and we were the most connected team. We didn’t go our separate ways even though we were making mistakes.”
Coming out of halftime, though, Michigan’s offense was running smoothly again, this time through sophomore center Hunter Dickinson in the post. Dickinson was involved in the first half, but the Volunteers succeeded in limiting his post touches. But to start the second half, the Wolverines made a concerted effort to get him the ball down low. He scored Michigan’s first nine points on the half, all in the post.
After a four minute stretch in which the two teams scored at a rapid pace, exchanging the lead six times, Tennessee finally got some separation. Guard Kennedy Chandler tore up the Wolverines’ defense, getting to the basket with ease while Michigan’s offense sputtered as Dickinson’s post touches dried up.
But facing a six point deficit, its season on the line, Michigan fought back. The Wolverines got stops on the defensive end and eventually tied it on a putback by Williams. A minute later, after the Volunteers retook the lead, Williams scored in the same fashion.
“He’s a prime time player,” Dickinson said. “But I don’t care how much minutes he plays, my man is going to make winning plays when he’s out there, and he did that today. We don’t win without Terrance Williams II today.”
On the ensuing possession, Michigan finally retook the lead. Brooks connected with Dickinson on a give-and-go, finishing over contact and drawing a foul. He knocked down the free throw to put the Wolverines up by three with just over three minutes to play.
Michigan never gave that lead up. Tennessee still got on the board, but the Wolverines always had an answer. They were resilient, coming back from deficits and overcoming the second-half absence of graduate starting point guard DeVante’ Jones. They played like the team Jace described, the team that had no other choice but to finally win two straight games, the team to finally show some sense of consistency.
And as time wound down, Dickinson dribbled across half court, his fist in the air, and launched the ball into oblivion as his teammates surrounded him. A bit of relief, a bit of disbelief and a whole lot of joy.
The Wolverines finally broke through.