Less than five minutes left in last night’s game, sophomore forward Manny Harris put the ball in his left hand, drove down the baseline and dished it to junior forward Zack Gibson. Gibson dunked the ball and was fouled on the play.
Gibson nailed the free throw and the atmosphere at Crisler Arena hit a crescendo.
Despite all that had gone wrong, Michigan was down by just four points against No. 9 Michigan State in the final minutes.
But Michigan wouldn’t get any closer and the Spartans pulled away to win 54-42 in the only regular-season matchup between the two rivals. Junior forward DeShawn Sims led Michigan with 18 points, but he was the only Michigan player to score in double digits.
The Wolverines had their chance in the waning moments, but as Sims said after the game, they were outhustled on many occasions.
With about three minutes left and Michigan down by five, Harris intercepted a pass and had just one defender to beat on the breakaway. As he went up to the hoop, Harris lost control of the ball and it sailed out of bounds.
A minute later with the Wolverines down by five, Harris grabbed a loose ball, but Michigan State center Goran Suton muscled it away.
“I think there were some 50-50 balls that we have to get,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It’s part of a willingness to bloody your nose to win, these are the ones we got to get.”
Michigan fought an uphill battle all game and struggled to score against Michigan State’s tough 2-3 zone defense. The Wolverines’ 42 points were a season low.
Michigan (5-7 Big Ten, 15-10 overall) mustered just 15 points in the first half. The only consolation for the Wolverines was that Michigan State managed just 23.
“That hasn’t happened to us much,” Beilein said. “Our timing’s off and their defense was very good as a shock early in the game. … We don’t really see that length and that speed defensively when we’re shooting the ball or moving the ball.”
In the opening minutes of the second half, it seemed like the scoring struggles would continue.
The Spartans outscored Michigan 7-4 in the first five minutes of the half. But with 14:10 left in the half, freshman guard Zack Novak received the ball on the right wing and knocked down his only 3-pointer of the night.
On three ensuing possessions, Novak fed Sims for three dunks. Novak had three assists, all of them going to Sims.
Sims was the Wolverines’ only viable scoring threat, with all of his coming in the paint.
To make things worse, sharpshooters Novak and freshman guard Stu Douglass finished a combined 1-for-8 from the field. The team wasn’t much better, hitting just 34.8 percent of its shots.
“Give them credit, they were ready for us,” fifth-year senior C.J. Lee said. “That’s just on guys taking their shots with confidence. I don’t think guys were scared. I don’t think guys were hesitant. I just think guys missed. We’re not going to change nothing. Coach has been doing this forever, and we’re not the first group to play this offense.”
Michigan hoped to use this game against rival Michigan State (10-2, 20-4) to bolster its tournament résumé. But now the Wolverines will have to scramble to pick up some quality conference wins before Selection Sunday.
Beilein wouldn’t say last night’s game was a must-win, just an important one.
“We just have to play,” Beilein said. “We just got to concentrate on the next practice, next game. What is the must for? Is it to get into the NCAA Tournament? When it comes to March and we’re not close to 20 wins or we’re not 9-9 in the league or something like that, then we won’t be in it.
“But does one game determine it? I don’t think so, but they certainly all add up.”
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