On this Valentine’s Day, there was no love lost between the Michigan men’s basketball team and No. 21 Wisconsin.
That much was evident when Badgers guard Brad Davison drove to the rim two minutes into the second half. On his way up, he extended an inside elbow that caught Michigan guard Mike Smith in the face. The officials reviewed it for a flagrant foul but ultimately determined the contact was inadvertent and hit the Wolverines’ bench with a technical foul for arguing otherwise.
Smith remained in the game, and on the very next play, Michigan coach Juwan Howard called a designed play for him. Smith finished through contact for an and-one, sparking a 35-16 run that powered the third-ranked Wolverines past the Badgers, 67-59, on Sunday afternoon.
“Our guys looked at it and saw their brother looking pretty dazed and affected by the elbow,” Howard said. “But Mike told his teammates, ‘Hey, I’m fine, I’m ready to go.’ I was a little fired up, too. But it was nice to see that they all rallied together. It was a big huge test of our culture, No. 1 thing in our culture, what we say and the word we believe in, we’re all a family. And it just goes to show you, family got tested, and everyone banded together like brothers for their family.”
Added freshman center Hunter Dickinson: “I think we came together after the foul and really said, ‘This is our time. This is the run we have to go on right now in order to come back and win this game.’”
Following a two-week COVID-related pause, Michigan overcame a 12-point halftime deficit in its first game since Jan. 22. Howard described a rusty return to practice earlier this week, highlighted by turnovers, excessive fouling and poor physical conditioning. That was expected after a long layoff, making the quick turnaround against the Badgers a daunting task.
But the Wolverines’ defense was up for the challenge. Michigan held Wisconsin to just eight points over the game’s final 10 minutes, creating an opportunity to win the game at the other end of the floor.
“I think we guarded and we really got up into them,” said Dickinson, who pulled down 15 rebounds and blocked five shots. “I think in the first half we let them run their sets too easily and let them get real comfortable out there. I think in the second half, we kinda got up into them, took away their vision and that made it hard for them to score.”
Battling through the conditioning consequences of a two-week layoff, the Wolverines’ defense stood tall throughout the second half. After giving up 39 points on 54% shooting in the first half, the Badgers scored just 20 second-half points on 25% shooting from the field and a dismal 8% clip from beyond the arc.
“Kinda thought about who wants it more,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “… You could see it in our eyes, see it in our expression, our body language. We were just really excited. We were grateful. Coach talked about being grateful because you never know, the game could be taken away from us again. We kind of tried to take it game by game. We were super locked in. Guys were flying around and playing that Michigan basketball on defense that we know how to play.”
Down the stretch on Sunday, it was that defensive mindset that made all the difference.