Angela Cesere

For a time on Saturday afternoon, it felt as if Michigan was on the cusp of returning to national basketball prominence. Crisler Arena was sold out and rocking, Dickie V was in the house, and the Wolverines appeared ready to match No. 14 UCLA step-for-step.

But it wasn’t meant to be. About eight minutes into the second half, the Wolverines began to unravel. Despite a valiant comeback attempt that brought the team within striking distance, Michigan couldn’t recover from its crucial mistakes down the stretch.

There were so many bricked open jumpers (mostly by senior Daniel Horton); so many maddening turnovers (everyone’s responsible for those);  and so many what-if moments (if Graham Brown had only held the ball – if Lester Abram had only pulled up for the J instead of trying to dish into traffic).

It’s frustrating because the setup seemed so perfect. What better way for Michigan to vault back into the top-25 than with a signature win over a basketball power like UCLA in front of 13,751 hyped fans? Selection Sunday is a long way away, but if Michigan finds itself on the bubble come Tourney time, I’ll look back wistfully at this game as a missed golden opportunity to improve Michigan’s resume.

The more I think about Saturday’s game, the more depressing it seems. To avoid getting too downtrodden – it was a December game, after all – I’ll now defer to the king of energy, Dick Vitale, who called Saturday’s game for ESPN.

“Awesome, baby!” – The atmosphere in Crisler Arena.

I was wondering how many consecutive wins it would take to get people hyped up about Michigan basketball. Apparently, the answer was seven. Finals week had no noticeable impact on the sold-out crowd, and 45 minutes before tip-off, most of the Maize Rage section was already filled. Crisler gave a standing ovation when the Wolverines entered the arena and kept the energy level up for most of the game.

The crowd’s most spectacular moment came after Dion Harris’s trey capped a 9-0 run that cut UCLA’s lead to four with less than three minutes to go. Crisler was so deafening that I couldn’t even hear the whistle blow when UCLA coach Ben Howland called a timeout.

“The three-S man: Super, scintillating, sensational” – UCLA guard Aaron Afflalo between 14:21 and 10:41 in the first half.

Afflalo only really showed up to play during those four minutes on Saturday, but damn, were they an incredible four minutes. After Michigan took an 8-0 lead to start the game, Afflalo went unconscious. He drilled four 3-pointers, scored 11 straight points and contributed 14 of UCLA’s points during its 16-2 run. Not surprisingly, Afflalo cooled off the rest of the game, but he still finished with 20 points and six 3-pointers.

“Dipsy doo, dunkaroo” – Senior Chris Hunter’s slam near the end of the first half.

With about a minute to go in the first half, Horton found Hunter streaking down the left side of the lane and hit him with a perfect pass. Hunter then threw down a thunderous two-handed slam and did a pull-up on the rim, hanging there for at least two seconds. Not surprisingly, Crisler Arena went bonkers in response to the monster jam.

“I felt a couple of people under me, and I felt a little off balance,” Hunter said. “So I just wanted to keep my balance and protect myself”

If that’s really the case, that dunk was the best-looking safety precaution I’ve ever seen.

“Dow Joneser” – Daniel Horton.

Vitale uses this term to describe an inconsistent player, and it seemed to be a good fit for Horton’s performance on Saturday. He started the game off fairly well, scoring eight points and dishing four assists in the first half. But in the second frame, Horton looked more like me throwing up bricks in the Intramural Sports Building than the guy who led Michigan to a 7-0 start. He went 1-for-8 in the second half – including five missed triples – allowing UCLA to take a 14-point lead.

But the most frustrating moment of Horton’s day came during the game’s final few possessions. Down by four, Michigan locked down on UCLA for 35 seconds, forcing an off-balance shot. The long rebound came in Horton’s direction, but he was outhustled to the ball. UCLA grabbed the board and took more time off the clock.

“He’s a P-T-Per, baby!” – Chris Hunter’s 15-point, 8-rebound performance.

Based on the stat-line, Bruin guard Jordan Farmar appeared to be the game’s primetime player, pouring in a game-high 21 points. But in reality, Farmar’s performance was significantly less impressive. He seemed more concerned with his one-on-one battles than with the team’s performance and often appeared to be out of control. He finished with only two assists and four turnovers – miserable numbers for a point guard.

Unlike Farmar, Hunter brought his play to the next level on Saturday. While he’s been inconsistent for much of the year, Hunter always seems to come with his “A” game against UCLA – he scored 21 points against the Bruins last season. This year, Hunter sparked the Wolverines’ last-ditch comeback, scoring eight of the their final 14 points. And scoring wasn’t Hunter’s only contribution – the captain pulled down some crucial boards, played strong defense and hustled all over the court during his 27 minutes of play. When it comes down to it, if every Wolverine played with Hunter’s poise and hustle, the outcome would have been much different.

 

Matt Singer loved seeing Dickie V in Crisler. He can be reached at mattsing@umich.edu.  

 

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