So it begins.
The much-hyped Tommy Amaker era began Friday night at Crisler Arena with an 81-73 revenge win over Oakland.
It wasn”t the prettiest win, but Amaker”s squad did what his predecessor former Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe couldn”t do in his final season at the helm: Beat the Golden Grizzlies.
It was an important victory for a team trying to regain its consistency and tradition of excellence. Last year”s loss was a setback from which the team did not recover, and one that left the Wolverines vulnerable to criticism of being just the third or fourth best team in the state.
But Friday was a different story. Despite early foul trouble for senior center Chris Young, Michigan was able to execute when it was supposed to, and implement a style of play transition offense, high traps on defense, patience to yield good shot selection that can only improve.
Junior forward LaVell Blanchard led the Wolverines with 14 rebounds, and was part of a balanced scoring attack that included fellow junior Gavin Groninger and sophomore Bernard Robinson. Groninger led the way with a game-high 19 points, and was supported by the contributions of Blanchard”s 17 and Robinson”s 15. Michigan showed that it might have some unforeseen depth as Amaker used 10 players, nine of whom saw double-digit minutes.
Friday”s game, like Michigan”s two exhibitions, was one in which the team failed to produce two strong halves. Following a timeout with 5:14 remaining in the first half and leading by 6, Michigan went on a 16-4 run to end with a 43-25 lead. Over that stretch six different Wolverines scored, and Michigan looked like it was as much better than Oakland as it is supposed to be.
The Golden Grizzlies are in just their third season as a Division I basketball program. Their victory last year over Michigan was the biggest in the history of the program.
In the second half, Oakland made up almost all the ground lost in the first, clawing its way back to within two points with 8:29 left in the game.
“I thought we, defensively, were outstanding in the first half,” Amaker said. “Certainly we haven”t been able to put two halves together of the basketball that we want to play. I think that has to do with us understanding that at halftime the game isn”t over.”
The second half was disastrous. As the Wolverines attempted to reestablish a comfortable lead, they were plagued by turnovers, most of them courtesy of Blanchard and Robinson.
The two scorers coughed up possession a combined 10 times, and made it difficult for Michigan to even find its scoring opportunities. The Wolverines shot the ball just 21 times in the second half, compared with Oakland”s 33 shot attempts.
The point guard position was shared by last year”s primary starter Avery Queen and fifth-year senior Mike Gotfredson. But it was the energetic senior who was super, hitting the basket of the day for Michigan.
With just over six minutes remaining and the Wolverines up by just six, Gotfredson found himself unguarded at the 3-point line. He hesitated, shuffled his feet, and sank the shot (just the second field goal of his college career.) The basket gave the Wolverines a nine-point lead, and a much-needed shot in the arm emotionally.
“I didn”t know if it was going in or not, but it went in and it felt great,” the modest Gotfredson said.
“I thought Gotfredson”s three was as big as any shot that we had all game,” Amaker said. “He stepped up, and he”s confident and he buried it. I”ll be even more pleased if we ever get a lead like that again and we don”t need to make those big plays.”
The game began as well as it could have. Its closing minutes were as nerve raking and unnecessarily dramatic as they could be. One old problem (defensive intensity) seems to have been successfully addressed, while another (keeping Chris Young and the frontline out of foul trouble) still needs work.
But a win is a win, and Amaker and his crew are very comfortable taking that away from Friday night”s game.
“They all aren”t going to be this dramatic,” Amaker said. “I”m happy for our kids because I know it was a tough situation for them a year ago, and I”m happy that they were able to bounce back in the opening game at home and to win.
“And we certainly can”t take that lightly for our ballclub.”