Saturday, March 7, 2009

Michigan guts out biggest win in a decade

ON BASKETBALL

It looked like the same old story.

The story of the past 10 seasons.

A Michigan basketball team that isn't bad and can win big games in front of a home crowd, but simply doesn't have the focus and drive — the will to win — to pull out must-win games in hostile environments.

The Wolverines were following the script early in the second half Saturday at Minnesota's Old Barn. They allowed the Gophers to get the ball in the paint whenever they pleased — which was often. They allowed the Gophers to get all the loose balls.

And just like that, Minnesota was up by 12 points and well on its way, it seemed, toward an NCAA Tournament berth while the Wolverines appeared like a team that, quite frankly, shouldn't play in the tourney.

Then the improbable happened, and it wasn't a fluke. The Wolverines, perhaps sensing the desperation of the situation, perhaps thinking about how they'd feel to have to settle for yet another NIT invitation, dug deep and mounted a run that shocked the ready-to-celebrate Gophers crowd.

It all started with Laval Lucas-Perry, which is strangely appropriate. After all, the transfer from Arizona didn't play his first game in the Maize and Blue until December. He hasn't been around long enough to be polluted by all the losing, by all the disappointments.

And so Perry wouldn't just accept another tough loss, another botched chance to get the Wolverines over the hump and into the Big Dance.

Instead, the freshman — who had been very quiet and unproductive in recent games — did what none of his teammates would do. He stepped up and hit one big 3-pointer (and the deficit was down to seven). Then another from long range (and it was down to ... seven, again).

But his third 3 in less than 2 minutes got the Wolverines within four. And when he added two free throws – giving him 11 consecutive Michigan points — the margin was suddenly down to two. And his teammates could smell a comeback victory.

From there, it was a team effort. Unlike in close losses in the past, the Wolverines didn't become stagnant when the opportunity presented itself to grab the lead that had long eluded them.

DeShawn Sims' pair of free throws gave them a 60-58 lead. Then, when Minnesota answered right back to tie the game, Sims coolly sunk a baseline jumper to regain the advantage. You could tell, on those two possessions, how much the junior wanted the win and a chance to put the past behind him.

He played like a man all early afternoon, leading Michigan with 24 points. And when Manny Harris assertively dished him a bounce pass in the final minute, Sims made the aggressive, you're-not-stopping-me play that has been nonexistent from Michigan players in the past decade.

He soared to the rim and jammed the ball home while being attacked by a Minnesota defender. That gave the Wolverines a five-point cushion, and when Lawrence Westbrook's last-ditch 3-point attempt fell wide left the Wolverines had their biggest win of the season.

Yes, bigger than beating UCLA. Yes, bigger than beating Duke. No, Minnesota isn't as good as either of those teams, but the importance of Saturday's win revolves around the date and location.

In March. On the road.

In recent years (excluding last season's loss-infested campaign), the Wolverines haven't had problems winning games in November, December and even January. But they've flailed down the stretch, when the games gain importance and the players sense what's at stake.

That looked to be the case for about 30 minutes on Saturday. But then the Wolverines showed me something new. They showed that they'll no longer accept defeat — no matter how close they come — when the deck is stacked against them.

They showed, in a gutsy 10-minute stretch of basketball, that they're an NCAA Tournament-worthy team.

Now, they have to close the deal. That means taking care of business in the first game of the Big Ten tournament (likely against Iowa) — a win that would almost definitely put them in the tournament. And it also means staying hungry and not settling; going out and winning games they're not supposed to pull out.

If Michigan goes on to Dance, the players will point to the conclusion of Saturday's game as the defining moment when they finally moved forward off of the bubble.

And, hopefully, erased the curse of a decade filled with nothing but disappointments.

1 comment:

OldEnglish said...

I hope this win propels them to do well in the Big 10 Tourney. We need some March Madness around here!