The game was out of reach…until it suddenly wasn’t.
With just 4:19 left on the clock, Michigan trailed Ohio State 63-50 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. The Wolverines’ offense had struggled throughout the day in the absence of starting forward Isaiah Livers, and Michigan was also without forward Franz Wagner, who had fouled out of the game.
The game was over. But nobody told the Wolverines.
Michigan gave one last-ditch effort to win the game, which included an incredible steal and score from freshman center Hunter Dickinson in the backcourt, and a massive three-pointer from Chaundee Brown in the final minute.
The Wolverines closed the game with a 17-5 run, and had the ball with 20 seconds left with a chance to win.
Senior point guard Mike Smith dribbled out the majority of the clock, got a matchup with Ohio State’s EJ Liddell on a switch, but his step-back jumper in the final seconds went long and bounced away. The Buckeyes held on for a 68-67 victory to advance to the tournament finals.
Smith is a guy who is used to being “the guy” in moments like these. He was one of the top scorers in the country last season at Columbia University. But it would’ve been nice to see the ball touch a couple different set of hands in the final possession – particularly, Dickinson’s hands.
Still, there’s little to be gained by dwelling on how that final possession played out. Juwan Howard and his staff will have to go to the drawing board in the coming week, and find ways to reignite this offense that is suddenly without one of its most dynamic scorers in Livers.
Both offenses hummed in the first meeting between these rivals, but it was the defense that stood out in today’s first half – limiting both teams to a 30 percent shooting from the floor by halftime. The Wolverines led 27-26 at the break.
The second half began much the same way. The physicality on both ends was often relentless. With 11:30 left to play, Michigan held a 43-42 edge.
It all unraveled from there for the Wolverines however. With starters Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson on the bench, Ohio State went on an 11-0 run – led by Duane Washington Jr. and E.J. Liddell – to take the lead and pull away.
The Buckeyes went on a 21-7 run over the course of the next seven minutes of action, and it appeared they would cruise to a victory. But chaos ensued for Ohio State, as Liddell missed a breakaway dunk, and the Buckeyes turned the ball over several times let Michigan back in the game.
Had the Wolverines scored on that final possession, those final four minutes would be ones that nobody on either side of this rivalry would ever forget.
1. Wolverines’ offense goes cold
Isaiah Livers is an offensive weapon that is not easily replaced, and that was evident in today’s game. Michigan shot just 35 percent from the floor, and was a chilly 6-of-19 from three-point range. For the Wolverines to be successful in the NCAA Tournament, they’ll need to be more efficient on the offensive end then they were today, and guys are going to have to start making shots. Brown hit the big triple late, but he was just 1-of-6 on the day. Meanwhile, Smith went just 1-of-11 from the floor. The loss of Livers doesn’t mean that Michigan is suddenly a poor shooting team, but that’s what happened today. Shot-making will determine how far this team can go in the Big Dance.
2. Wagner proves voters wrong
Inexplicably, Franz Wagner was left off the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team. On Saturday against Ohio State, the sophomore’s defensive prowess was on full display, and clowned the conference’s voters along the way. Wagner impacted possession after possession on the defensive end for the Wolverines. His numbers – 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals – while impressive, don’t even tell the full story of how well he played on that end. Offensively, it was a tough shooting day for the sophomore, who scored 8 points while converting 2-of-10 attempts, and added 4 assists. In the end, Wagner’s defensive effort wasn’t enough to lead Michigan to a win, but that does nothing to diminish the fact that he was absolutely deserving of an All-Defensive team selection.
3. Brandon Johns Jr. replaces Livers
Brandon Johns Jr. had the unenviable task of replacing Livers in the starting lineup today, but it’s a role that junior was prepared for. Last season, Johns Jr. started 10 games with Livers out of the lineup, and he played well in his increased role today. Johns Jr. finished with 7 points – all via the free throw line – and grabbed 8 rebounds. He’s not the on-ball defender that Livers is, and there were a couple close-range chances on offense that you’d like to see converted, but there’s a lot of positives to take away from Johns Jr.’s performance today.
4. The ‘Big Dance’ awaits
Michigan is a bit of a wounded animal heading into the NCAA Tournament, both figuratively and literally. Livers’ has been ruled out “indefinitely”, so it’s unclear if a return for the senior is possible in the coming weeks – should the Wolverines advance beyond the opening weekend. Michigan has no lost three of its five games in the month of March, after opening the season 18-1. The Wolverines will likely be a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, so the Round of 32 is all but guaranteed. (Only once in history has a 1-seed fallen to a 16-seed in the first round.) Michigan’s hopes for a deep run are tied to the health of Livers, and whatever potential matchups await the Wolverines. This is the hand they’ve been dealt.