COLUMBUS — With 4:28 left in the game on Sunday, No. 20 Michigan was barely clinging to its last hopes of a late-game comeback, down nine points and with two starters on the floor with four fouls.
Freshman point guard Trey Burke, making a return to his hometown, drove the right side of the lane and forced a shot while leaning on the big body of No. 4 Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger.
It missed, as did the two follow-ups by redshirt sophomore forward Jordan Morgan and senior guard Zack Novak — the two starters in foul trouble. The Wolverines were left flailing helplessly around the rim. And they were helpless to stop Sullinger, who followed his defensive stand with a fast-break dunk to clinch the win. Michigan couldn’t muster much the rest of the way, falling 64-49.
The final score belied the true progress of the game, as the Wolverines were in it for most of the afternoon. Down just three points at halftime, Michigan quickly tied it at 26 with a 3-pointer by senior guard Stu Douglass. But the Buckeyes responded with a 3-pointer of their own and never relinquished that lead.
Morgan picked up his fourth foul with just over 13 minutes remaining in the second half, and primary backup Evan Smotrycz also picked up his fourth shortly after that. With a diminished lineup, the Wolverines couldn’t answer on the offensive end. Down 12 points when Smotrycz exited, Michigan actually cut the deficit by three before Smotrycz and Morgan re-entered. But it wasn’t enough to stop the Buckeyes’ momentum.
“Sullinger’s a year older, Craft’s a year older,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They do a really good job, and (William) Buford really understands defense. They have more experience, but their length is really important. They’re as long as anybody.”
The Michigan offense struggled throughout the game on Sunday, shooting just 35.8 percent from the field. Buckeye guard Aaron Craft, known as one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, proved his worth. The combination of Craft’s defense and the Ohio State big men jamming the lane on screens kept Burke from getting much breathing room, forcing the freshman into five turnovers.
And the Wolverines weren’t strong enough on the glass, losing the rebounding battle, 38-29. Buckeye guard Lenzelle Smith’s performance typified Michigan’s struggles. Throughout the game, the 6-foot-4 Smith managed to crash in from the weak side and either get a putback or draw a foul, finishing with 12 rebounds — eight on the offensive end.
“We didn’t control them on the glass like we should have,” Burke said. “(DeShuan Thomas) and (Sullinger), they all had second-chance opportunities. It’s hard to beat a team like that when you give them that many opportunities.”
The Wolverines took a quick 5-0 lead in the opening minutes. After the Buckeyes quickly answered, the scoring went back and forth from there. A combination of solid defense and poor shooting from both teams kept it a low-scoring affair, as both Michigan and Ohio State shot under 40 percent from the field in the half.
The Buckeyes looked to have a serious advantage with Sullinger establishing himself in the paint early. But Michigan responded by switching to a 2-3 zone out of the second media timeout. Ohio State struggled to adapt to the new look, which Beilein has rarely used this season. The Wolverines kept the ball out of the paint, and the Buckeyes usually missed any open 3-pointers they got.
“I think you’ll see that from time to time during the year, trying to change the matchups we have,” Beilein said. “We always try to do things just to change up, so they never get comfortable. You let this team get comfortable, they got too many bullets in that gun.”
Ultimately, Ohio State did get comfortable. When the Buckeyes extended their lead to eight points early in the second half, Michigan responded with a 7-0 run to tighten the game once more. But Ohio State answered with an 8-0 run of its own just before Morgan’s fourth foul. The Wolverines couldn’t come back after that.
And Sullinger finally came alive late in the game to help seal it for the Buckeyes, who found their shooting touch in time to put it away late in the second half.
“They just maintained that (defensive) intensity,” Douglass said. “I think we were working pretty hard, but we had to play a little harder than them, and we were just kind of keeping the same intensity level. We couldn’t get past it.”