Having time off can be a blessing, but it can also be a challenge to come back playing with the same timing and execution as before a break. With no game Wednesday, Michigan had a few days of extra rest to prepare for Saturday’s game against Iowa – and it looked like that was going to hurt it.
After looking as sluggish and void of energy as it had all season in the game’s first half, the Wolverines’ extra rest finally kicked in as they put the Hawkeyes on lockdown defensively in the final eight minutes to win 70-62. The win snapped Michigan’s two-game losing streak, and gave it some added momentum as it heads into Bloomington Wednesday to face the Hoosiers.
“I really thought that our second-half defense was the key to pulling this one out,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “I thought our play defensively allowed us to get into their passing lanes and get some fast-break points.”
Poor execution was Michigan’s biggest problem in the first half. The Wolverines shot just 37.5 percent from the field and committed nine turnovers. These miscues led to lapses in the zone defense, lapses during which Iowa was able to work the ball inside and score many easy layups. Seven of Iowa’s 10 first-half buckets were scored in the paint. But because the Hawkeyes shot just 37 percent from the field, Michigan was able to enter halftime with a 31-29 lead.
“We are concerned with the lack of execution,” Amaker said.
But the second half was a different story.
Junior Bernard Robinson and freshman Lester Abram seemed to have an infinite amount of energy coming out of the lockerroom. Both put relentless pressure on the Iowa offense, picking up a combined five steals for the game.
The defensive heat translated into several fast break opportunities for Robinson, who filled the box score with a game-high 21 points, six assists, six rebounds and two assists.
“I hit my first jumpshot, and then I opened up a little bit and got more confidence,” Robinson said. “I was able to get to the basket today and find those other players, and we finished on our shots. I played well but the team really boosted me. They were able to find me and everybody was looking for each other.”
Lester Abram, who finished with 14 points, two steals and a career-high nine rebounds, also provided a much-needed boost of energy.
With freshman Daniel Horton fighting injuries and his shot in the last few games, Abram has stepped up to become a consistent threat on both ends of the floor. His post play and his ability to finish near the hoop are becoming essential to the Wolverines’ success.
“It’s not common to have a kid with that kind of mental toughness,” Amaker said. “I have always said Lester is tough and a competitor. That is one of the reasons he was a two-time high school champion and major reason why we wanted him to come here.”
Horton was able to find Abram near the basket twice for easy alley-oop lay-ins, a play the two haven’t tried much this year.
“That was just us playing basketball and finding the openings,” said Horton of his passes to Abram.
The point guard benefited most from the rest, as he finished with 16 points, three steals and two blocks. Horton had been struggling because of fatigue, but he seemed refreshed in the second half, even throwing one down for the first time this season in a game.
“I just get tired of people saying I can’t dunk,” Horton said. “That was a little extra motivation for me, and I just wanted to give the team a little energy boost.”
The Wolverines’ second half defense mirrored its performance at Ohio State and at home against Minnesota. In both those games, the Michigan defense shut down the opposition down the stretch in the second half, not allowing the Buckeyes to gain any momentum.
Michigan got back to that on Saturday, and Iowa was flustered.
“They close gaps really fast and they can jump,” Iowa center Sean Sonderleiter said.
With the win at home, Michigan continued its quest to win the conference title. With its difficult road schedule, every home game is almost a must-win.
“For me, every game is a must-win,” Abram said.