Wojo: Wolverines stung by slow start, crushed by painful ending

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It came down to the final possession, the final shot, the final second, the final tip, a tremendously tight game between top-10 teams. The ending stung the Wolverines badly, but that’s not what they should remember.

No. 5 Michigan was rocked at the start by No. 10 Oregon, and the Wolverines spent the rest of the afternoon scrapping to recover. That’s the stinging lesson that’ll linger. The Ducks hung on for a 71-70 overtime victory Saturday, and there’s no need to gnash madly over an outcome that hung on the rim ever so briefly, then fell off.

Michigan head coach Juwan Howard talks with Michigan center Jon Teske (15) in the first half.

The Wolverines (8-3) lost their second straight game as Zavier Simpson’s mini-hook misfired, and Brandon Johns Jr.’s tip bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded. They lost because Oregon is just as talented, and has a superb senior guard in Payton Pritchard, who hit clutch shot after clutch shot and finished with 23 points. They lost because Simpson took it all on, perhaps a bit too much, with the toughest offensive and defensive assignments.

More than anything, Michigan lost a crusher because it was staggered early and trailed by 16 midway through the first half. The shots finally started dropping and the sold-out Crisler Center started popping, and against a lesser opponent, the Wolverines probably would’ve escaped.

“It’s gonna be a painful week, because all our guys in that locker room, they’re hurt right now, and so am I,” said Juwan Howard, whose team has a week off before facing Presbyterian. “Give (Oregon) credit. Great ballgame, 71-70 in overtime, nothing to be upset about.”

Simpson's rough day

This is one thing quickly apparent about Howard, in his first season replacing John Beilein. He’s a players’ coach, less interested in assigning blame and more interested in instilling confidence. He preferred to focus on the inspired play of backups David DeJulius (14 points) and Johns (10 points, nine rebounds), and the breakout shooting of Franz Wagner (21 points, 4-for-7 on 3s).

These are players Howard didn’t even know six months ago, and it’s clear his early mission is to build trust and cohesiveness. He’s off to an excellent start, and not just because he danced excitedly with them on the court after their preseason tournament title in the Bahamas.

Howard knows Michigan will ride as Simpson rides, and while he’s still learning his point guard’s bulldog ways, he has no desire to restrict them. Simpson was in a bind Saturday, trying to guard Pritchard one-on-one, and the coaching staff stuck with him. It didn’t go so well, as Pritchard drove again and again, and Michigan’s big men clung to their own defensive responsibilities.

More: 'I thought we had it': No. 5 Michigan's comeback falls short in OT loss to No. 10 Oregon

More: Brandon Johns supplies jolt, quality minutes in Wolverines' heartbreak defeat to Ducks

Simpson also had a rough day shooting (3-for-11, eight points) and was in the middle of all the wild action, with 11 assists and four turnovers. It’s easy to pick apart the final possession — he took the inbound pass with 10 seconds left and dribbled slowly up the court, then drove the right side and flipped up his hook — but that wasn’t what Howard wanted to hear.

If the play was designed for Isaiah Livers to get the ball, as Johns indicated afterward, that didn’t bother Howard. And the fact is, Michigan had two close shots to win it.

“We got the ball in the hands of the right person, the one we wanted to have it, and I loved the look we had,” Howard said. “He had an opportunity to either drive it for a basket, throw it back to (Livers), or put it up for an offensive rebound. It was a great decision on his part, and we live with the results.”

Heating up

That’s been the upbeat theme so far for Howard, as Michigan has scored huge victories and suffered a few tough losses. Nobody was happy with the start against the Ducks, who use all sorts of zone and matchup defenses, as well as full-court pressure, to rattle an opponent. Michigan trailed 25-9 with seven minutes left in the first half, and disaster beckoned.

Then Livers got hot. And Wagner got hot. With nine minutes left, Michigan tied it 48-48, and incredibly, neither team led by more than three the rest of the way. On the final play of regulation, tied at 63, Simpson swatted the ball from Pritchard and forced the Ducks to fire a desperation heave that was good, but a shade after the buzzer.

Wagner hit a 3 to start overtime and it appeared Michigan indeed might pull it out. But the Ducks were relentless, led by the experienced backcourt of Pritchard, Anthony Mathis and Chris Duarte, and thwarted a couple chances by the Wolverines in the final 35 seconds.

“We had a play (at the end), and I think we ran it pretty good, we got the tip, it didn’t go in,” Wagner said. “It’s not about that last play, really. I think it’s important to know that. We lost the game because we started bad.”

It could be a useful learning tool for the players and the coach. Against the Ducks’ ever-changing defenses, Howard had to lean more heavily on guys like Johns and DeJulius, which left big Jon Teske on the bench at key moments late.

For long stretches, Oregon controlled the perimeter and the paint, and shot 50 percent on 3s against a Michigan defense that’s been very good (27 percent on 3s before Saturday). In many ways, the Wolverines look the same as they did under Beilein, with a tenacious defense and dangerous 3-point shooting, especially as Wagner heats up.

“Some shots we may have rushed, but overall, I loved the fact our guys stayed in it, didn’t get down on themselves,” Howard said. “The mental stability was definitely present.”

That’s what Howard is working hardest on, confidence-building, and the tests are about to start piling up. Michigan has two non-conference warm-ups before jumping back into Big Ten action at Michigan State Jan. 5. This one hurt the Wolverines but it shouldn’t haunt them, not as long as they recall how it ended, and more important, how it started.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski