If you’ve watched Michigan play much this season, you couldn’t have been terribly surprised by how its season finale against Indiana played out. Despite turning a 14-point first half deficit into a 12-point second half lead, despite holding a double-digit lead with ten minutes to play, the Wolverines faltered down the stretch and lost 77-75, failing to even get off a shot on their final possession. The loss, Michigan’s second consecutive overtime setback, dropped the Wolverines from a potential second seed in the Big Ten tournament to an eighth seed. The loss also dropped their record to 17-14 and left their NCAA tournament hopes on life support.
Give Michigan credit for not quitting. In a game that was on the verge of getting ugly early, the visiting Wolverines calmly and methodically clawed their way back. Down 27-13 with just over four minutes to play in the first half, Michigan went on a 39-13 run, cutting the halftime deficit to just a basket and ultimately building a 54-42 second-half lead.
But while Michigan may have wrested control of the lead, it never truly wrested control of the game. And in the end, as has been the case so many times this season, Michigan couldn’t close and suffered another gut-wrenching, come-from-ahead loss.
After the game, Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said he was proud of his team for the way his players fought. And he should be. In what’s been a frustrating season, Michigan has never stopped fighting, never stopped competing. But at some point, you want more.
Because if it’s in Michigan’s DNA to play hard and compete, it’s also in Michigan’s DNA to suffer late-game collapses. To play its worst when the stakes are the highest. Far too often this season, Michigan didn’t just fail to hit big shots down the stretch, but failed to run offensive sets that generated good looks. Too much aimless dribbling. Too often settling for low percentage shots late in the shot clock.
While Sunday’s game was a crushing loss for Michigan and its NCAA tournament chances, it was also an entertaining game. One that didn’t just feature two teams vying for second place in the Big Ten, but one that was also a showcase for two of the conference’s best players: Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Indiana’s Trace Jackson-Davis.
The big men did not disappoint.
Dickinson led Michigan with 24 points and 14 rebounds on 59% shooting while Trace-Jackson countered with 27 points and nine rebounds on 48% shooting. Both also seemed to relish having the ball in their hands in the game’s final moments. But where Trace-Jackson was aided by key contributions from teammates down the stretch, including a crucial three-pointer by Jalen Hood-Schifino and some timely defense by Race Thompson, Dickinson had to shoulder most of the load himself.
Kobe Bufkin continued his strong play and had a big second half, but missed his final three field goals attempts and turned the ball over on the game’s final possession. Jett Howard finished with 16 points and hit several big three-pointers that were instrumental to Michigan’s early comeback, but failed to score over the game’s final 20 minutes.
In the end, it was a familiar refrain. Led by Dickinson, who’s averaging 18 points and nine rebounds on the season but has upped his scoring to 26 points per game over the past three games, Michigan played well, had a chance to put the game away, but couldn’t execute in the game’s final minutes and ultimately fell short.
The loss relegated Michigan to a difficult path in this week’s Big Ten tournament. An opening round match-up against Rutgers with Purdue waiting in the wings and a likely date with the Iowa/Michigan State winner after that. A daunting task for a team that needs a deep run in the Big Ten tournament if it hopes to get on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
But Howard isn’t talking to his players about the NCAA tournament. Or even the Big Ten championship. “My message to the team is to prepare for Rutgers,” Howard told reporters this week. “They’re a tough, well-coached, athletic team. And they have our full attention.”
That’s a good start. But the question is, how will Howard and his Wolverines finish?