A very important trend has started for the Michigan Wolverines basketball team over their last couple of games. Juwan Howard and his team have figured out how to perform in the clutch moments of ballgames. This was a major issue in the middle of the season when they went 6-9 after a 7-0 start.
The Wolverines were atrocious in the waning minutes of games towards the start of Big Ten play. They fell apart on the road against Minnesota when the game was tied at 57 with seven minutes to play. Michigan had no answer for Daniel Oturu and scored only two points in the final three minutes resulting in a 67-75 loss on the road against the Gophers.
In the very next game on the road in Iowa City, Michigan fell to the Hawkeyes after leading 72-65 with 10 minutes remaining. The Wolverines only scored 11 points after that and couldn’t stop Luke Garza as the game ended in an embarrassing 90-83 defeat.
Then at home against Illinois, Michigan scored only five points in the last six and a half minutes in the 64-62 loss. The difference in this game was that the Wolverines defense started to put the puzzle pieces together slowed Illinois’ star point guard Ayo Dosunmu late, but the game boiled down to who was going to hit the big shot, and Dosunmu delivered. Michigan had their chances, but missed shots left and right, and doinked a couple of attempts from the charity stripe.
Finally, their most recent loss (61-58) was to Ohio State. This was a nail bitter to the very end, and the Buckeyes matched every shot the Wolverines hit pretty much for the entire second half. If it weren’t for a technical foul call on Zavier Simpson with a couple of seconds left, Michigan could have won that game.
Those four games alone swung the entire outlook on the season up to that point. The Wolverines were 13-9 and seemed to be falling out of the NCAA Tournament picture.
But, Michigan slowly and surely began to bridge the gap from their downright awful attempts at closing out games at the beginning of Big Ten play to losing heart breakers. Since then they have continued to progress on their recent four game winning streak with clutch victories over Michigan State and on the road against Rutgers thanks to some stellar defensive stops and a couple of huge shots that swayed momentum.
After a Kyle Ahrens three-pointer with five minutes had the Spartans converting on three straight possessions and cut the lead back into single digits, Juwan Howard wisely called a timeout to calm everything down in Ann Arbor. Then, Zavier Simpson put the nail in the coffin with a huge three-pointer catapulting the lead back into double digits.
This is exactly the kind of big shot the Wolverines could have used in their losses earlier this season when they went cold against Minnesota and Iowa. Simpson’s big three pointer left the Spartans dead in their tracks and got the Crisler Center rocking again after a moment of concern.
In the win over Rutgers, the game hit a bit of a dry spell as both offenses watched only one field goal fall in six minutes of gameplay. Then as the shot clock was winding down Eli Brooks nailed a highly contested three-pointer that certainly altered the course of the game.
Once again this spoke to the coaching of Howard. Right out of the TV timeout he made sure that his guys knew they should milk the clock with both sides struggling to put points on the board while Simpson sitting on the bench thanks to foul trouble. The original play design fell through, but nonetheless one of his veteran players hit a monumental shot that helped seal this one.
The Wolverines defense flipped the script as the Scarlet Knights scored just eight points in the last six and a half minutes of the game. For the second time in four games, Michigan held firm in the biggest most important minutes of the game.
It appears that the Wolverines and Howard are starting to manage moments down the stretch much better and they are growing as a team when times get tough. If they can continue to win battles in clutch moments like the have recently against Michigan State and on the road against Rutgers (and hopefully with a 100% Isaiah Livers) they can be very dangerous as March rapidly approaches.