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Juwan Howard speaks on Michigan’s response to controversial elbow that sparked victory

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It was a key moment, but maybe not what truly led to the win for the Wolverines.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines stepped onto a basketball court for the first time in 23 days in Sunday’s 67-59 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers, but it was far from easy. There were plenty of concerns about rust returning from a three-week layoff, but Michigan was able to power through it and continue its winning ways.

The Wolverines looked to be a step slow on both ends of the floor in Sunday’s game, which put them in a 12-point hole to climb out of as they went into the locker room at halftime. Head coach Juwan Howard felt that the team’s defense help sparked the comeback effort.

“We knew (the first half) wasn’t Michigan basketball,” he said. “We understand that we made some mistakes on the defensive end by limiting too many open shots and screens. In particular (No. 4) as well as (Micah) Potter. We knew (D’Mitrik) Trice was the head of the snake. Trice is going to make plays and he’s that good. But to only be down 12 versus a very good team on the road, we were in striking distance. And understanding that we had the ball first coming out of halftime, I wanted to make sure that we were running a good set to get us a bucket.

“We got the bucket we needed, but the focus was on the defensive end. I wasn’t more concerned with the offense than the defense, because I knew our offense can be generated from our defense and our defense responded. So I give credit to our guys, man, They competed hard.”

A major turning point in the game took place less than two minutes into the second half when Michigan point guard Mike Smith took an elbow to the face from Wisconsin player Brad Davison, a player who has a history of dust-ups and incidents on the court. There was a palpable energy that came from the team’s response to that.

“I thought, from my angle, it looked like it was a non–basketball play but the referees went and took a look at the monitor,” Howard said. “I trust their decision on saying it was a basketball play. That’s fine. But our guys looked at it, saw their brother looking pretty dazed and affected by the elbow. Mike told his teammates, ‘Hey, I’m on fire now. I’m ready to go.’ He also told me, because I was a little fired up too, that it was nice to see that they all rallied together. It was a big, huge test of our culture by, number one thing in our culture, a word that we say and we believe in is that we all are family. And it goes to show you family got tested and everyone banded together like brothers for their family.”

Smith took the ball right down the floor on the next position for a layup that trimmed the deficit to single-digits for the Wolverines. Howard confirmed in a follow-up question that he intentionally called the play for Smith to get a bucket as a bit of sweet revenge.

That play was the first in a 35-16 run for Michigan to close out the game. There was plenty of rust on both ends of the floor early in the game, but senior forward Isaiah Livers said that there was always a desire to figure it out.

“We kind of thought about who wants it more, not saying they didn’t want it, but, obviously, the team that comes out with the victory is the team that wants it more,” Livers said. “You could see it in our eyes, you could see it in our expression, our body language, we were just really excited, we were grateful.

“Coach (Howard) talked about just being grateful because the game could be taken away from us again, so, we try to take it game-by-game. I thought we were super locked-in, guys were flying around, and playing that Michigan basketball defense that we know how to play.”

Michigan and its stingy defense, which KenPom ranks as the 7th-most efficient in the country, is back in action on Thursday night in a home tilt with Rutgers.