Twenty-one points is no small deficit, especially when playing on the road. But the fact that the No. 5 Michigan men’s basketball team was a bounce of the ball away from taking a last-second lead against No. 11 Ohio State in its 56-53 loss on Sunday is a testament to how good the team can be, when it shows up.

This was a tale of two halves, and the Wolverines can’t allow this to become a common occurrence. Lackluster defense will lead to double-digit deficits, but Michigan won’t be able to assemble a comeback every time. As much firepower as the Wolverines possess on the offensive end, perhaps their greatest strength can be their defense, which showed how necessary it is to this team.

“I think for the majority of the second half, we played well,” sophomore guard Trey Burke said after Sunday’s loss. “We should have played the way we played in the second half, in the first half.”

That much is clear: Michigan’s offense might not have been able to do much of anything in the first half, but the defense was where the mess started. During a 10-minute span in the middle of the first stanza, the Buckeyes scored 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting from the field.

Michigan’s defense was mediocre at best during most of the first half, allowing Ohio State to beat it off the dribble while closing too slowly on the perimeter. The Wolverines were unable to do anything right on that side of the ball. They conceded 34 points, allowing Ohio State to shoot 52 percent from the field, including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.

They showed no sign of the defense that allowed just 47 points on 34-percent shooting in their 62-47 win against Nebraska last week.

“We got very, very excited about this opportunity and got out and probably challenged defensively a little too much away from our base defense,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.

But with just over three minutes left in the first stanza, Michigan showed a glimpse of why they are one of the best teams in the country. After a 3-pointer from Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas widened the gap to 34-15, the Wolverines clamped down on defense.

Blocks from freshman forward Mitch McGary and Burke created fastbreak opportunities on offense. Spanning the two periods, Michigan held the Buckeyes scoreless for more than five minutes.

Following halftime, the Wolverines continued what they started. Alternating between a zone and man-to-man defensive scheme, they controlled the contest the rest of the way on the defensive end.

Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who had tallied seven points and two assists in the first half, produced just two points and two assists in the final 20 minutes, including a 0-for-4 showing from the field. As a team, the Buckeyes scored just 22 points in the final stanza, shooting less than 35 percent from the floor and 1-of-6 from downtown. Michigan also had all five of its blocks in the final 23 minutes, including two each from McGary and Burke.

“Before we went to zone, I think we tried to hug the perimeter too much and tried to take away their perimeter shooting,” Burke said.

Added Beilein: “It was an option that worked, back and forth. … We always have a couple of things in our package. Every game we try to have a package for everything.”

But most impressive was Michigan’s defense in the final minutes. Falling behind 52-46 after a Thomas layup with just over four minutes remaining in the game, the Wolverines didn’t allow a field goal the rest of the contest — the Buckeyes sank four free throws in the final 12 seconds. They forced four of their eight second-half takeaways in the final three minutes, scoring four points off turnovers.

Though it was a tale of two halves for the defense, Beilein stayed positive about the over exuberance during the first half.

“I like having guys that have the big hearts, and a lot of courage, that want to go out there and get after them,” Beilein said.

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