ANN ARBOR - On a day that Michigan's basketball program paid tribute to a star of another era, the Wolverines again presented evidence that the current era may not be all that bad.
UM roared from behind to beat Iowa 70-62 yesterday at Crisler Arena and, coupled with Purdue's loss at Minnesota, moved back into a first-place tie in the Big Ten.
At haltime, two-time All-American Rudy Tomjanovich became just the second ex-Wolverine, joining the legendary Cazzie Russell, to have his uniform number retired. There will never be another No. 45 at UM and, presumably, never another Rudy T.
But there was a Lester Abram yesterday and he provided much of the spark as Michigan improved to 14-8 overall and 7-2 in conference play.
Abram came up one rebound short of a double-double, finishing with 14 points and nine boards. He was just as valuable at the defensive end, making one stop after another and producing three second-half steals that fueled transition baskets as the Wolverines fought from a 46-40 hole.
Iowa (12-7, 4-4) was guilty of only six turnovers in the second half, but the Wolverines turned five of them into points.
“We just started playing the passing lanes and started playing smarter,” said Abram, a 6-6 freshman guard. “We had to cut out all the fouls because it was a stop-start type of game and we couldn't get into any flow.
“We realize that if we buckle down and play solid defense in key stretches we can win any game. That's what we did. I think there were three straight [Iowa] possessions where we got steals and got into transition and that was the game.”
UM's comeback was aided when Iowa's igniter, senior guard-forward Chauncey Leslie, who scored just six points, took a seat with four fouls at the 12-minute mark.
The Wolverines tied the game at 48 on an Abram layup off a nifty pass from Daniel Horton, fell behind 50-48, then reeled off 10 straight points.
LaVell Blanchard came up with a steal and fed Horton for a jam, then an Abram theft sent Horton to the free throw line. On UM's next possession, Abram rebounded a 3-point miss by Blanchard and scored on a putback.
The Wolverines later produced a 7-0 run that sealed the outcome as Blanchard hit a big trey before Bernard Robinson scored on a fast-break slam off a steal and pass from Abram.
The win, UM's 11th straight at home, snapped a two-game skid and saddled Iowa with its fourth loss in five games.
Robinson led the Wolverines with 21 points and became the school's 38th player to surpass 1,000 career points. Horton added 16 with six assists while Blanchard doubled up for the fourth time this season with 10 points and a dozen rebounds.
“I really thought our second-half defense was the key,” said Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. “It produced a big win that keeps us in the hunt. It's a long race and there's a lot of basketball yet to be played, but if you're going to have a chance at winning a championship you have to do the job at home.”
The Big Ten race and the conference's tournament are the extent of what Michigan can play for this season. Because of NCAA infractions, the Wolverines are banned from postseason play.
Amaker said he “would be disappointed if that's something that even enters our thoughts.”
The proof is being forged on a remarkable number of late comebacks. Five of UM's seven league wins have come after trailing at some point in the second half.
“It's character and confidence that allows us to make plays,” Amaker said.
The Wolverines travel to Indiana for a game Wednesday, then return to Crisler Arena next Saturday for a 3 p.m. tipoff against Ohio State.42.28188 -83.74848