Utah State is known for overcoming big deficits.
Michigan collapsed down the stretch in key losses to Iowa and Ohio State this season.
So when the Aggies cut the Wolverines’ 12-point halftime lead to one with just more than eight minutes remaining in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) last night, the 3,114 loyal fans at Crisler Arena let out a nearly audible groan.
But it turned out there was nothing to worry about.
In his final home game, captain and fifth-year senior Lester Abram carried Michigan to a 68-58 victory over Utah State in the second half.
“We knew they were going to have their run,” senior Brent Petway said. “But I was glad to see that we were able to bounce back and get the lead back up.”
In the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Tournament Championship last week, Utah State trailed 16-2 less than five minutes into the game and the deficit was still 10 at halftime. But the Aggies battled back and had a chance to tie the game with two seconds remaining when a Jaycee Carroll 3-pointer fell short at the buzzer.
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker had seen tape of Utah State and knew full well of the Aggies’ comeback capability and told his team to start being more aggressive.
The Pontiac native completed an old-fashioned three-point play to stretch the lead back to four. He grabbed a tough rebound on the defensive end that led to two Jerret Smith free throws. And after another Wolverine stop, Abram led the charge down the court, finishing the fast break with a layup for an eight-point Michigan lead.
“It was good to see (Abram) get assertive again,” Petway said. “We’ve been telling him to stay aggressive.”
Perhaps inspired by its leader, Michigan continued the run. Smith – who tallied a team-high 15 points – added a 3-pointer and two free throws, and the Wolverines used the 12-0 run to gain an insurmountable lead.
Utah State did its part, too, failing to score for more than seven minutes in the second half.
Some of the Aggies’ struggles can be attributed to Michigan’s suffocating defense.
“We knew we had to get a few stops,” Amaker said. “This team was down big in a few games that I happened to watch on film, and they were able to always battle back.”
Utah State (23-12) stuck close to the Wolverines for most of the first half last night until freshman DeShawn Sims stepped up.
After a mostly disappointing regular season, Sims has found his game in postseason play. He appeared more confident against Minnesota and Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, shooting 50 percent or better in each game. He scored eight and six points, respectively.
But last night’s first stanza proved to be his official coming-out party.
With Michigan’s lead at two, Sims scored seven consecutive points for Michigan (22-12). He knocked down two jump shots and finished a tough basket while being fouled to extend the lead.
“DeShawn was aggressive; he was very active; he just looked like he was on a little bit of a mission right there,” Amaker said.
Asked if his career-high tally of 14 points signified he was finally comfortable on the floor after pressing too much earlier in the season, Sims indicated he wasn’t satisfied.
“This is as good as I’ve felt so far,” Sims said. “But it’s not as good as I’m going to feel when it’s all over with.”
It’s not clear whether “it” referred to the rest of the NIT Tournament or his future at Michigan.
Either way, Wolverine fans have something to look forward to.