No, he hadn’t hit either of his first two 3-point attempts in the game. In fact, Zack Novak has been trying to find his long-range stroke all year.

Michigan 68
Connecticut 63

PHOTO SLIDESHOW

Despite that, when he got another chance to bomb one from deep late in Michigan’s 68-63 win over Connecticut on Sunday, the sophomore was so excited to shoot it he mishandled the ball and had to pass it up.

“(Junior Manny Harris) threw the one to me and I’m so jacked to shoot it that I just bobble it out of my hands,” Novak said. “So I knew the next opportunity I got, I knew it was going in.”

That next opportunity came with 1:30 left in the game after the Huskies tied it at 58. Harris had the ball at the top of the key. He hesitated, drove the lane, and kicked out to Novak, who hit the fadeaway 3-pointer to give Michigan the lead for good.

In a season like the one the Wolverines have had, endless optimism is a great asset. Zack Novak’s attitude in the waning minutes of Sunday’s game (just get me the ball, this next one’s going in) is the same as the team’s (let’s focus on the next game, this next one’s gonna be a win).

But this one didn’t always look like a win, with Michigan going down 12-6 early.

And then, Stu Douglass happened.

The sophomore hit two 3-pointers in less than a minute to tie the game, then assisted Harris on a fast break for a crowd-igniting dunk. Just like that, Michigan was up 14-12.

Despite entering the game with a significant size disadvantage, as they often do, the Wolverines controlled much of the first half with great defense in the paint, holding Connecticut to 23 points.

Instead of letting offensive miscues get inside the Wolverines’ heads and effect their defensive intensity, Michigan coach John Beilein said he saw his team play tough defense throughout — unlike what happened in last week’s game against Northwestern, when the Wolverines let misses on offense affect their effort on defense.

Every good college basketball team will make a run every game, and Connecticut’s came as the second half started. The Huskies went on a 18-8 run, which included their lone 3-pointer of the game, and took a 41-40 lead at the 13:15 mark.

The game went back and forth until the final minutes when Michigan regained its lead on Novak’s lone heroic 3-pointery. That shot put Michigan up three and was quickly followed by a Connecticut turnover, which Harris finished at the rim to give the Wolverines a commanding 5-point lead with just a minute left.

Harris finished with a game-high 18 points, 12 in the second half. The other member of Michigan’s Big Two, senior DeShawn Sims, had a relatively quiet afternoon, tallying just eight points, but the forward still managed to grab 11 rebounds.

“I just didn’t hit shots. It was unfortunate but I did some other things,” Sims said. “I focused on defense and rebounding and making some of those hustle plays. That was enough to get us over the top.”

And for the first time this season, when Harris and Sims couldn’t find their shots, the rest of the team stepped up in a big way. Novak had 10 points and the biggest shot of the game. Douglass finished as the second-leading scorer with 13. Redshirt junior Anthony Wright — who in recent games has seen his playing time dissipate — chipped in nine points, including two 3-pointers in the first half.

“It’s just a matter of being ready to shoot the open shot,” Wright said. “Which I always have been. But not too many opportunities have come my way.”

Now the team has an opportunity to either impress the selection committee or drive a stake into the heart of its tournament chances. Michigan’s next three games? At Wisconsin, at Purdue and Michigan State at home.

So the Wolverines find themselves in a bit of a no-man’s land — they know their odds at making the tournament are still long, but they believe Sunday’s win leaves them in the hunt.

That relentless optimism will certainly come into play during this next stretch of games.

“Not being in the tournament race and having a little salty taste in your mouth is not good for our team,” Harris said. “This is giving us a lot of confidence, and we’ve got a great stretch. Hopefully we keep it going.”

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