ANN ARBOR, MI — The Michigan Wolverines dropped their fourth-straight game on Saturday afternoon in a tough 64-62 contest to Illinois that went a half-second short of the final buzzer. The loss was difficult for the postseason resume and the outlook moving forward, but a bigger loss may have occurred in what was supposed to be the return of one of their stars.
Isaiah Livers returned to action after missing six-straight games with a groin injury and got the start for Michigan. However, he would re-injure the groin on a transition dunk attempt and be removed from the game until the team needed a desperation pass at the very end to set up a potential game-tying or winning shot.
“Unfortunately for Isaiah, he went out with his injury and injury obviously is a day to day,” head coach Juwan Howard said after the game. “So as he gets treatment with our training staff (and) medical team, we pray that he comes back healthy, and 110 percent. His effort out there was great. The energy from the crowd when his name was called just shows how much he’s a huge part of his team’s success. So it’s good just to see our fans to recognize Isaiah and his efforts when he was playing and is playing in high level.
“When we had that possession at the end of the ballgame, I wanted to have one of my best guys who could inbound the ball and make a pass. And he asked if he can come in, and as you see I inserted him in a ball game. He delivered a pass on time and on target.”
When Livers went down again, a hush came over the Crisler Center crowd and every player, coach and fan in the building went silent and pale.
“You could just see the silence not just from the crowd, but from our bench,” Howard said. “All the players in looked at Isaiah as he fell to the floor, first thing when I saw it, I thought it possibly his wrist but then I noticed sort of how he grabbed that area near where he was injured (before). Previously I said well, unfortunately for him, you know, no one really deserved to be hurt, but it happens and it happens in sports. So our guys band together like brothers said that of course we will...win this ballgame for him.
“And that’s the beauty of having a locker room of guys who are truly a close-knit family. As a coach, that’s something that I get a little tear- eyed just saying. Our players are so all-in.. fight for one another, care for each other, enjoys each other’s success. I’m just fortunate to have a group like this.”
This loss hurts as much as any this season for the Wolverines, who are now 4-8 since returning from the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving break. Howard
“The hardest part in sports, when you are coaching, you know...18 through 22 year olds. They really love the game of basketball,” Howard said. “They’re passionate about the game of basketball. And that’s what makes coaching so special at this level.. Because they’re impressionable and they are craving for more knowledge they want to get better. They are looking for the right leader to to trust them.
“And the sad part about coaching from 18 and 22 is that you come in after a game like this and you lose it and you see nothing but red eyes. And you know that heads are down. There has been some crying that’s been involved in the locker room. It hurts you as a coach, because I feel like I let them down. And that’s the worst feeling ever. So I’m just proud of our guys and how they compete. And something special is headed for them. I believe and I trust in it. And the beauty of the sport is that it’s a tough sport and at times it will bring you to your knees. But it also will define your character.”
So how will Howard guide his team and try to keep them positive as they seek answers amidst a tough stretch? He says he will call on his own experience in these situations.
“Well, there’s a coach that played this game before and been through those experiences. I haven’t won every ballgame when I was playing on the high school, collegiate level, in the park district or on the professional level,” Howard said. “So my thing and my job is to keep coaching them up and keep believing in this group and keep this group connected. And that’s not hard to do because we have a bunch of high-character guys that are super-competitive that are passionate about the game of basketball, and they want an opportunity. So I know they want to play tomorrow. I know they wish they could play tomorrow.”
Outside shooting remains a huge problem for this group after going 4-for-17 from three-point range on Saturday, which has been an all-too-familiar trend for them in conference play. Howard says the only way to address it is to keep at it.
“Well, we’ll get in the gym and we’ll continue to keep coaching them up and developing them. And as we have open shots I want our guys to keep taking them. Keep feeding confidence.”
Next up for Michigan is a trip to Nebraska on Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. ET, which will be televised nationally via Fox Sports 1.