Louisville, Ky. — What was originally supposed to be the undercard of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge turned into a heavyweight fight between two unbeaten teams.
In one corner was No. 4 Michigan, a team that made a rapid rise in the rankings after thumping two top-10 teams in a two-day span last week.
In the other corner was top-ranked Louisville, a team that entered the season as a legitimate national title contender with national player of the year candidate Jordan Nwora.
What ensued was a defensive grind in which Michigan’s offense was smothered and could never get off the mat in a 58-43 loss Tuesday night in a rowdy KFC Yum! Center.
Senior center Jon Teske did all he could with 18 points and 10 rebounds, but didn't receive much help as Michigan (7-1) couldn’t overcome a rough first half in which it shot 20 percent (6-for-30).
By the end of it, the numbers were ugly across the board in one of Michigan's worst offensive outings in years. The Wolverines shot 25.9 percent (15-for-58) from the field — their lowest mark since they shot 19.2 percent against South Carolina on Nov. 23, 2016 — and were held to their fewest points in game since they scored 42 against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 9, 2014.
"They did an overall good job playing defense," Teske said. "They're active on the ball screen, active with their hands when we got in the lane. A lot of shots weren't falling. I told my team to keep shooting those same shots, but they held us to a low percentage and give them credit for what they did."
Michigan fell to 2-25 all-time against the No. 1-ranked team in the Associated Press poll and 8-11 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Dating to 2000, the Wolverines have lost 12 straight matchups against the nation's top-ranked team.
After the struggle-filled first half in which only three Wolverines made a field goal, Michigan appeared to find its footing in the second half. The Wolverines rattled off an 8-0 run with four points coming from Teske on a short jumper and two free throws to pull within 30-26 with 16:59 to play.
The momentum and semblance of a rhythm, though, was short-lived. The Cardinals clamped down and countered with Nwora, who made three baskets around the rim to start a 13-2 spurt that put the Wolverines in a 43-28 hole with 12:08 remaining.
Teske did his best to keep Michigan in the fight with five straight points on two free throws and a 3-pointer to cut Louisville’s lead to 47-37 with 6:01 to play. But the Wolverines could never claw any closer before a missed 3-pointer by Teske in transition and a live-ball turnover led to a victory-sealing swing.
Nwora turned a loose ball into a three-point play and followed with a step-back jumper to effectively put the game out of reach, 52-38, with 2:58 remaining.
Nwora finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds and Steven Enoch added 13 points and 10 rebounds for Louisville (8-0), which never trailed despite shooting 36.7 percent (22-for-60) from the field and 21.1 percent (4-for-19) from 3-point range.
"It was a grinder of a game," Louisville coach Chris Mack said. "I think the story of the game was just our defensive effort from the beginning of the game all the way through. We probably played 38½ minutes of as good of defense as we could play outside of the first minute to start the second half."
The teams entered Tuesday's matchup both ranked in the top 20 nationally in field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting. Yet, the offensive highlights were non-existent.
Neither defense gave an inch as clean looks, second-chance opportunities and even made free throws were hard to come by over the first 10 minutes.
Michigan’s offense was suffocated and left slogging through scoring droughts as one tough mid-range jumper after another clanked off the rim during a 2-for-18 shooting start.
Louisville missed 11 of its first 14 shots but was the first to crack double digits and snap out of its shooting slump. A 3-pointer from Enoch helped spark a 15-3 run over a six-minute stretch that put the Cardinals up, 22-7, with 5:16 left in the first half.
But it never got much better for Michigan as its offensive struggles continued to snowball. Teske was the only scorer — making the team’s first two baskets — before senior guard Zavier Simpson split two free throws at 10:01 mark.
Outside of Teske, it wasn’t until junior forward Isaiah Livers drained a 3-pointer — after missing his first seven shot attempts — to cut it to 24-12 with 3:36 left in the half that another Wolverine made a field goal.
By the time halftime arrived, Michigan made six shots — with four made baskets from Teske — and faced a 28-18 deficit that it couldn't shoot its way out of.
"They do a great job of defending overall," Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. "Our goal was to make sure that we get those paint touches that we were comfortable with getting throughout the year thus far. ... Just fortunately for them, they did a really good job of compacting the paint, keeping us out of the paint and from going downhill."