When the buzzer went off to signal the end of last night’s men’s basketball game against No. 1 Illinois, Crisler Arena erupted in cheers. Michigan had finally done it — it gave the Maize and Blue faithful a reason to show up at games.
Funny thing is, the Wolverines didn’t win. They extended their losing streak to seven, dropped to .500 for the season and stretched the Fighting Illini’s win streak to 24.
But it didn’t feel like it.
Michigan’s 57-51 loss to the team that is widely considered to be the best in the nation — and the only one that remains undefeated in the NCAA — is a moral victory for a team that, in each of its last three games, has lost by at least 17 points. These defeats did not come against good teams, either. With each of these embarrassing blowouts, the Wolverines’ confidence sank to a new low, and coach Tommy Amaker and his team had fewer and fewer answers as to why their season was spiraling out of control.
No one was surprised that Michigan lost to Illinois, an obviously superior team. But everyone was shocked that Michigan, at this time, the lowest point of its season, could hang with the Fighting Illini.
Last night, the Wolverines exhibited something that they hadn’t shown in a long time — swagger. Even prior to the game, they looked different. They weren’t just going through the motions of warm-ups — they attacked their layups with vim. If Michigan was a horse parading around pre-race in a paddock, and it had to face the defending Triple Crown champion, you’d have almost bet on it to win.
During the game, Michigan shot with confidence. And for once, players besides sophomore spark-off-the-bench and crowd favorite Brent Petway grabbed rebounds as if they thought that they were critical, instead of just automatically hustling back on defense. They held a typically high-scoring team to its lowest final score of the season.
They also ran something of an efficient offense and more than tripled their assists from Saturday’s game — which isn’t saying much as they had just four against Ohio State. But again, we’re talking moral victories here. The assists illustrate that Michigan played as a team in the way that it has not been able to do since the beginning of its losing streak.
Michigan was cognizant, capable and determined — a shocking combination considering that all the stats, all the film and the team’s overall defeated attitude these last few weeks would indicate that it was anything but.
And a team probably never looked as relieved after a loss. In the locker room, usually stoic sophomore Courtney Sims — whose consistent shooting helped keep the Wolverines even keel — nearly cracked a smile and mentioned that he and sophomore Dion Harris were bantering about how good they felt about the potential that this game held for them before taking the court.
The Wolverines attributed their loss (win) to finally listening to Amaker and “executing” the way that Amaker has apparently been prescribing throughout Michigan’s slump.
“I think they believed in what we were going to try to do tonight,” Amaker said of his team. “I thought that this was one of the keys — that we worked hard instituting this game plan.”
And apart from Michigan’s rather sad 50-percent performance from the free-throw line and the miniature “Fundamentals of the Steal” clinic that Illinois’ Dee Brown ran in the middle of the second half — three steals in four possessions that pushed Illinois into the lead that probably lost the game for Michigan — it did execute.
The problem is, no one seems to know what made things click for the Wolverines. Amaker said they finally “sold their kids” on the notion of slowing the game down, but why now? Why not after a 29-point loss to winless-in-the-Big Ten Purdue? Why not after the loss at home to Minnesota?
It could have been the desperation that inevitably accompanies aa stretch like the Wolverines have had finally sunk in, or that Amaker simply said something to them that lifted the clouds, and allowed his players to see the light as far as his game plan was concerned. Perhaps the confidence that, according to Sims, helps them perform in practice finally just found its way to the floor when game time rolled around.
But if there was any such epiphany for the Wolverines, they weren’t telling what it was. It could potentially be problematic that Michigan seems to have no concrete idea of what, exactly, helped them to success last night. Then again, it might not matter — the Wolverines could find that the newfound confidence is invaluable in and of itself.
Whatever the reason for yesterday’s emotional turnaround, Michigan hopes that the close loss to a great team will give it the momentum that it needs this Saturday, when it takes on Michigan State at home.
Momentum from a loss?
It’s a start.
Megan Kolodgy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org