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'It was beautiful': Rolling UM gets a boost seeing family in the stands

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — While playing in front of empty stands during a pandemic, Michigan has had to rely on its bench as its sole source of energy this season.

That changed Sunday when the Wolverines had another outlet to feed off in the top-25 matchup against Northwestern: a smattering of loved ones in the Crisler Center seats.

“It's always nice to have family around,” senior guard Eli Brooks said after the 85-66 win. “Just seeing my parents up there and I know for other people on the team, it was just a great moment to see them back in Crisler. For some, it's the first time their families are watching them on the Crisler court, so that means a lot.

“Just knowing the people up there are cheering for you and you can hear those little remarks from your parents, it's fun to play. I think it felt a little different but not that much.”

A limited number of family members were allowed at Crisler Center for the first time this season on Sunday.

Previous COVID-19 restrictions set by the state health department prevented any fans from attending Michigan’s first six home games at Crisler Center. But changes in the state order made three weeks ago allowed for gatherings of up to 250 people at sporting events in stadiums and arenas.

It marked the first time Michigan players had family members on hand for a game since last year’s regular-season finale at Maryland. Limited family attendance was also permitted for Michigan’s Big Ten tournament matchup against Rutgers in Indianapolis, but that contest and the entire postseason was canceled at the onset of the pandemic.

Families for both Michigan and Northwestern players and coaches were in attendance and socially distanced on Sunday, with the Michigan section seated across from the Wolverines bench and the Northwestern section seated across from the Wildcats bench.

However, the Michigan fans, some armed with maize pom-poms, had much more to cheer about as the Wolverines put on an offensive and defensive show. Michigan made a season-high 12 3-pointers and shot 50% from the field for the third straight game, while holding Northwestern to season lows of 66 points and 27.8% shooting from 3-point range (5-for-18).

"I was surprised by the big difference to nobody being in here really. Obviously, everybody is a little bit excited when they see their parents up there,” said sophomore wing Franz Wagner, whose mother, Beate, was at the game.

“It was definitely like that for me, too. It's even better that we made some shots and had it going like that.”

Being away from family has been one of the toughest challenges for the Wolverines since they arrived on campus in mid-June and have stayed in a mini-bubble to minimize COVID-19 risks.

Before Michigan’s Christmas Day matchup at Nebraska, senior forward Isaiah Livers said it’s been difficult to not see his parents for a long period of time, even though he calls them nearly every day. Livers added it’s been even more of a struggle for the team’s freshmen, who are away from family for the first time.

More: UM rises to No. 10 in latest AP poll; MSU drops to No. 23

Michigan coach Juwan Howard has promoted a family atmosphere since he took over and Brooks credited the coaching staff for making Ann Arbor feel “like a second home” for the players. Before the Dec. 13 home contest against Penn State, Michigan provided a nice touch and even used submitted videos from players’ parents to announce the starting lineup.

But it still hasn’t been easy.

“I feel for the players not having their loved ones watching them play, particularly the seniors,” assistant coach Phil Martelli said on the “Inside Michigan Basketball” radio show last week. “It’s their last go-around and they're playing well. You would like them to share that with their families in person rather than virtually.”

For the first time in a long time, the Wolverines were granted their long-awaited wish to have some familiar faces in the Crisler Center stands once again.

"I would say this, it was great to see family, (have) family present,” Howard said. “It's been a very challenging time and our players have been through a lot. I know their families have been through a lot as well because they haven't been able to see them as much. It was beautiful to see the support of family being present. I know our players appreciate it. I know I did.

“We made sure after the game we showed our appreciation by clapping and acknowledging their energy and effort they brought. But we're so locked in on the floor that we don't really pay attention. We look in between those lines, but we know we've got support that's in the building cheering us on.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins