INDIANAPOLIS — For a fleeting moment, all the pain, disappointment and frustration of this season disappeared from Laval Lucas-Perry’s face.
He had launched a three — like he has so many times this season — and this time, with a little over 11 minutes left in Thursday’s game against Iowa, the shot fell.
Lucas-Perry clapped his hands and exhaled. Finally.
And just like that, the rest of the Michigan men’s basketball team also relaxed and watched its crucial shots fall — en route to a 59-52 victory over the Hawkeyes in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
It was a pattern that kept repeating itself throughout Thursday’s game: struggle, hit a shot and breathe a sigh of relief. Junior guard Manny Harris was the first; he knocked down a three in transition in the game’s opening minutes. After that, he cruised to another 19 points, and better yet for the Wolverines, his teammates found their strokes, too.
In the game’s first ten minutes, Michigan (7-11 Big Ten, 15-16 overall) quickly jumped out to a 24-8 lead, and it all started with Harris’s spark.
“It was just good for our psyche,” sophomore guard Zack Novak said. “We came out, shots were falling, people were making good plays, and (it) kind of built us a little bit of a cushion there. Any time you can do that in a tournament, in any game, that really helps.”
Harris stayed hot, and senior forward DeShawn Sims got in on the act, too. In fact, for nearly 10 minutes to start the game, the duo accounted for all of Michigan’s points. After Sunday’s loss to Michigan State, in which Harris posted a career-low four points, it was reassuring that his scoring touch returned.
After the early burst of scoring and a comfortable lead, the Wolverines cooled off toward the end of the first half. Iowa (4-14, 10-22) switched to a zone defense which forced Michigan coach John Beilein to adjust his game plan regarding Harris and Sims.
The Wolverines could no longer score at will, and they didn’t make a field goal in the final six minutes of the first half. That cold spell carried into the first few minutes of the second half as well.
But once more, all it took was a spark. Or rather, two.
With 14 minutes left in the game and Michigan’s lead dwindling in the single digits, Novak stepped behind the arc and fired a 3-pointer. That, followed shortly by Lucas-Perry’s monster three, gave the Wolverines not only a cushy lead, but also confidence. Suddenly, the two-man show of Harris and Sims had some company.
“We got a little bit of something from everybody, and that helps Peedi down low and definitely helps Manny,” sophomore point guard Stu Douglass said. “Sometimes, it turns into almost a two-headed monster. You watch Peedi and Manny, and that’s where we just crumble.
“We all need to stay together, and even if we’re not shooting, contributing, then cutting hard and running the offense smoothly — things we just didn’t do at Michigan State, and it turned out terrible.”
Beyond just balanced scoring and offensive involvement, there were other major differences between Thursday’s game and the Wolverines’ last loss. One area they showed vast improvement in was turnovers — they forced 14 Hawkeye turnovers, compared to turning the ball over just eight times. Another was Harris’s involvement on both sides of the ball. After a dreadful scoring and rebounding performance at Michigan State, he put up 22 points and nine boards Thursday.
Michigan’s win over Iowa was its third of the season, and it catapults the Wolverines into a second-round matchup with No. 1 seed Ohio State on Friday at noon.
“It might be a little bit of how we match up with Iowa, but we’ve had that contribution from a little bit of everybody against them all three games this year,” Douglass said. “We’ve got to keep it going into Ohio State.”