INDIANAPOLIS — You could feel the sold-out crowd — most of which was non-partisan, but was rooting vociferously against the No. 10 Michigan men’s basketball team — hold its collective breath as Stu Douglass sized up his shot from the left corner at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It was, after all, a critical moment in the game. Overtime had begun a minute ago, and though the Wolverines had climbed back from a nine-point deficit to force the extra period, it was a whole new game, as the cliché goes — momentum was still up for grabs.
Douglass, one of Michigan’s two seniors, had to be feeling some nerves. Not only was it a potential game-changing moment, but he hadn’t made a shot all game. There he was, set up in the corner with the ball in his hands under the burning glare of about 15,000 pairs of eyes.
But Douglass did what seniors do — he knocked down the shot. And with 2:16 left in the period, he followed it up with a contested jumper in the lane. That gave Michigan the largest lead it would have in overtime, and did much to seal the 73-69 win over the Golden Gophers.
“It’s basically accepting the role that you have to be ready at any time,” Douglass said. “The entire game … I just kind of had to accept (my lack of offense), but at the same time, you have to realize that at any moment, your guy might help off, or a loose ball might happen like it did in overtime.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen, (so) you just got to be ready at all times.”
And Douglass wasn’t the only one to shake off his ice and come alive in the game’s final minutes. Fellow senior co-captain Zack Novak finally made his first shot with 3:35 left in regulation, hitting a 3-pointer to cut the Wolverines’ deficit to seven points. Novak added another 3-pointer with 1:16 left, putting his team down just three points.
While freshman point guard Trey Burke and sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. were busy scoring at will en route to 50 combined points, Novak and Douglass were busy playing defense and doing little else.
Novak had some opportunities in the first half but didn’t do much with them, missing all four of his field goal attempts. Douglass was simply nonexistent, putting up only one shot. The pair won’t ever claim to be very athletic, and that showed against the more dynamic Minnesota wings.
“They do a really good job of flying at me,” Novak said. “They’re so athletic, and they’re just long. For me, I struggled a little bit just getting over them, but thankfully there at the end … I was finally able to get a (3-pointer) up and knock it down.”
Michigan coach John Beilein said that Novak’s and Douglass’s lack of productivity was no accident — the Golden Gophers were determined to stick to them and the Wolverines’ other shooters on the perimeter. Minnesota wanted to prevent Burke and others from driving into the lane and drawing help from the outside, opening up Michigan’s wings for open looks from deep.
The flip side of that strategy was that it allowed Burke to have a career-best scoring night. On many occasions, the freshman attacked the rim almost unimpeded for layups en route to a 30-point night.
But Tubby Smith’s gameplan did succeed in holding the Wolverines to six less 3-point attempts (17) than they average.
“We only got five (3-pointers) off in the first half, which means (the Gophers) weren’t giving help,” Beilein said. “It was sort of the middle-of-the-court attack that we used at that time. It allows us to play the 2-on-2 or the 3-on-3. That was their choice.
“It worked very well for a long time, and then we just got enough penetration at times, and enough confusion through some things, that we got some guys open.”
Being seniors, Novak and Douglass have played against that defensive tactic many times before in their careers. They didn’t get overly frustrated, continuing to allow the hot hands of Burke and Hardaway Jr. to keep doing their thing.
Their experience also means, though, that they were more than ready to seize their opportunities when they mattered most. The calmness was evident on Douglass’s face as he rose from the corner, holding both the ball and the balance of the game in his hands.
“I was thinking, I’ve got to put my imprint on this game,” Douglass said. “(I thought,) we’ve got to find some way to get momentum rolling. … I tried to pick up the intensity on defense and (was) just being prepared on offense.
“I didn’t get (baskets) the first 40 minutes, but in overtime, (I was) just trying to be aggressive and ready.”
That readiness on the part of Douglass and Novak ended in a successful comeback and, for the second straight year, a Big Ten Tournament semifinal match-up with Ohio State. To be sure, the seniors will be ready for that, too.