Through one half of basketball, yesterday’s Michigan/Ohio State game looked a lot like the first game the two teams played this year, a back-and-forth affair that ended in a five-point Michigan victory. The quality of play may not have been at quite the same level, but the competitiveness certainly was. Ditto the intensity. And with a one-point game at the half, you’d be forgiven for thinking this game would also go down to the wire. It ultimately did, but not the way anyone would have foreseen.
Michigan’s first game playing without it’s injured captain Isaiah Livers went about as well as you’d expect. The Wolverines played hard and Brandon Johns, starting in place of Livers, acquitted himself well. Johns played particularly well in the first half, scoring five points and grabbing four rebounds. But it was an uneven performance for the Wolverines. Michigan may have played the Ohio State even through 20 minutes, but the points seemed a lot harder to come by for the Wolverines than they did for the Buckeyes. Michigan may have headed to the locker room with a one-point halftime lead, but it felt like the Wolverines were swimming upstream most of the half.
The first time the two teams met, Ohio State was essentially a two-man team, with Duane Washington Jr. and EJ Liddell accounting for 53 of Ohio State’s 87 points. Things weren’t much different in Saturday’s rematch. After a relatively quiet first half, the duo got it rolling in the second half, combining for 32 second-half points. How dominant were Washington and Liddell? At one point the two accounted for all 22 of Ohio State’s second half points.
With Grand Rapids native Washington leading the way, it wasn’t long before Ohio State surged to a double-digit lead, a lead that peaked at 13 points with a little over 14 minutes to play. While the Buckeyes were rolling, Michigan was reeling. But instead of folding, the Wolverines hung tough and put together a late-game run for the ages.
Ohio State led by 11 points with a little over three minutes to play when the Wolverines made their final push. Michigan outscored the Buckeyes 11-1 during a final, frantic, stretch run that cut the lead to a single point. Michigan made one final defensive stop and had the ball with a chance to win. But with its final possession, Michigan opted against looking inside to Hunter Dickinson and instead, Mike Smith essentially dribbled out the clock and launched a jumper from the top of the key. “We got exactly what we wanted,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard would say of the game’s final play. But symbolic of Michigan’s day, Smith’s jumper rimmed out, and after the scramble for the rebound exhausted the final seconds of the game clock, Ohio State escaped with a hard-earned, one-point victory.
With the victory, Ohio State not only gained a measure of revenge, but more importantly, advances to play Illinois with the conference tournament championship and a potential number one seed in the NCAA tournament on the line.
For Michigan, the game provided a glimpse of life without Livers. And it wasn’t pretty.
It’s not just Livers’ scoring that Michigan missed - and will continue to miss. Former Michigan head coach John Beilein often talked about Duncan Robinson’s importance to the Wolverines. Simply having the sharpshooter on the floor forced opposing defenses to honor his presence, spreading the defense, opening the floor. It’s much the same the Livers. Even when he’s not scoring, Livers keeps Michigan’s opponents honest, forces them to guard the perimeter. This leaves the middle more open, allowing Smith, Dickinson and company more room to operate.
Without Livers Saturday, Ohio State didn’t have to honor the perimeter. The Buckeyes clogged the middle and swarmed Dickinson and Austin Davis when they got the ball. At one point, Davis was comically surrounded by four red jerseys.
After the game, Howard stressed how proud he was of his team, and Michigan fans everywhere should share his feelings. But while the Wolverines played extremely hard, they didn’t always play well. And they certainly didn’t shoot well (just 35% from the field). Smith was unable to replicate his performance against Maryland, and when his last second jumper didn’t fall, Michigan lost for the third time in five games.
From here, Michigan rests and tries to regroup. Can the Wolverines regain their mid-season form? When they not only won 18 of 19 games but looked good doing so? Can they still make a deep tournament run? One that seemed so possible just weeks ago? Without Livers, it certainly won’t be easy. But like they say, that’s why they play the game.