Ann Arbor — Free-throw shooting has traditionally been a strength for Michigan under coach John Beilein.
But the past two games, it’s become a weakness that has nearly cost the Wolverines in crunch time.
Before senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit two free throws with 1.2 seconds left to save Michigan in Monday’s 68-67 win over Maryland at Crisler Center, junior center Moritz Wagner and sophomore guard Zavier Simpson each missed a pair in the final five minutes.
Wagner, a 70 percent free-throw shooter, had a chance to give the Wolverines their largest lead of the game when he came up empty at the line with Michigan up 59-50 with 4:49 to play.
Then after Maryland’s Anthony Cowan hit a 3-pointer to make it a two-point game with 20 seconds left, the Terrapins immediately fouled Simpson, a 50 percent free-throw shooter, on the ensuing inbounds and he clanked both attempts.
It led to Kevin Huerter’s open 3-pointer, a one-point lead for Maryland and near disaster for Michigan with 3.2 seconds remaining.
“With a nine-point lead, we miss four foul shots during that time and that’s something we’re going to have to continue to work on,” Beilein said. “I officially announced our foul-shooting woes were over after we went 19-for-19 (at one point) at Michigan State, and I spoke too soon. Zavier and Moe both have got to get better in those situations when they start fouling us late.”
For Simpson, it’s the second straight game he has struggled to help put the game away the line.
Against Michigan State on Saturday, he missed four straight free throws in an 18-second span late in the second half — two with Michigan up eight with 2:09 to play and two more with the Wolverines up six with 1:51 to go. However, Simpson bounced back and knocked down three of his final four free throws to make it a nine-point game with 59 seconds remaining.
“I think there’s going to be times at the end that your point guard is going to have the ball and he’s going to be a good shooter. You just have to wait it out,” Beilein said. “You don’t shoot the 3s that he has, you don’t go through the career he’s had and not make it. Right now, it’s mental, and we just got to continue to feed him over and over again and work at his routine.”
Beilein said he noticed a couple of mechanical flaws in Simpson’s form at Michigan State, and they tried to work on it prior to Monday’s game against Maryland, but it probably made it worse.
“It’s like the golf swing — when somebody tells you what to do, you know you’re not going to have a good golf swing,” Beilein said. “So, I think he’s thinking about that and he’ll get there. I’m concerned about it only because we want him on the floor late in the game and it’s such a hard, mental thing to see people go through it. He’ll come around and he’ll win games for us.”
Michigan finished 7-for-12 from the line against Maryland and 28-for-35 against Michigan State.
For the season, the Wolverines are shooting 66.1 percent on free throws, which ranks 312th in the nation and is the lowest mark during Beilein’s 11-year tenure. Entering this season, the previous low under Beilein was 69.9 percent set in 2010-11.
While Michigan might’ve been weary against Maryland coming off a quick two-day turnaround, it won’t get much more time to rest this week with games at Nebraska on Thursday and against Rutgers on Sunday.
“I don’t think we’ve been in schedules before that were this difficult,” Beilein said. “With one day off and then two days and two days, it doesn’t get much tougher than this. Everybody in this league seems to have it so we can’t complain. We’re just going to play through it.”
… Abdur-Rahkman’s winning free throw gave him his 1,000th point of his career. He became the 52nd player in program history and 10th Wolverine under Beilein to reach the milestone.
“I definitely didn’t think it was going to happen like that,” Abdur-Rahkman said, “but I’m glad it did because we got the win.”
… Michigan’s 20-point first half against Maryland was the fewest points it has scored in the opening 20 minutes this season and second-fewest of any half, just ahead of the season-low 19 points it scored in the second half at Ohio State.