ANN ARBOR — In a seven-day span, Michigan sent a message to its Big Ten brethren and college basketball teams throughout the country that the vexing Wolverines have remained pesky.
The veterans have provided production in critical moments, the freshmen are playing an unexpected pivotal role, and underclassmen called upon for the first time have responded with enthusiasm.
Dating to last Tuesday, Michigan lost to No. 5 Purdue by one point, beat No. 4 Michigan State on the road by double digits for the first time since 1997, then defeated Maryland in a gritty performance with two last-second free throws.
“People are saying you’re pretty good,” Michigan coach John Beilein told the Wolverines before Monday’s game. “I’ll tell you how good you are if you can beat Maryland.”
After beating the Terrapins with about 48 hours of preparation, coming off what is annually Michigan’s most emotional game of the season, the 23rd-ranked Wolverines (16-4, 5-2 Big Ten) displayed the mettle that quality teams possess.
On a night when they were far from their best, a win was the final result.
“This one hurts,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “This one obviously stings a little bit because we thought we had it.”
Passions were wide-ranging, from elation to discontent. Michigan trailed the entire first half — by as much as 14 — before scoring the first 10 points of the second half. With 1 minute, 3 seconds left, UM led by five, and the game felt to be securely in its grasp. And then a final minute of hysteria ensued, with the Wolverines ultimately winning 68-67 on Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman’s free throws, his 999th and 1,000th career points, with 1.2 seconds to play.
Two days prior, it was junior Moritz Wagner who provided Michigan with the boost, recording a career-high 27 points in a building where 99.9 percent of the arena’s occupants spent two hours jeering him.
“They’re impossible to guard with Wagner,” said Turgeon, echoing the same comments Tom Izzo and the Spartans made Saturday.
Michigan shot 50 percent in the second half Monday, connecting on nine 3-pointers. It all came after 20 minutes of uninspired, lackadaisical play. Wagner specifically mentioned the high of the Michigan State game playing a role in the sloppiness.
“It was one of those days when we felt like nothing is really working,” he said. “We don’t give up. We’ve been down 18 points before, we’ve been down 16 against Purdue. We’ve been in these situations. We trust each other.”
Another tricky game comes Thursday when Michigan travels to Nebraska, a team that’s 4-3 in the Big Ten and boasts an imposing home-court advantage. The Cornhuskers are 10-1 at Pinnacle Bank Arena this season, and coach Tim Miles’ team seems primed to finally build on its NCAA tournament appearance from 2014.
While it represents a trap game of sorts, it’s also a contest Michigan should win — if it’s the team that’s been lauded so heartily the past week.
“The turnaround is tough,” Wagner said. “But that’s what makes good teams good. Adversity, we’ve proven that we can win and adjust. But prosperity? That’s what the really good teams adjust to.”
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