'We took the challenge': Defense shines as No. 3 Wolverines shut down No. 9 Hawkeyes

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan’s defense has passed its share of tests throughout the Big Ten season.

On Thursday night, the Wolverines faced their biggest one yet in a top-10 matchup against national player of the year candidate Luka Garza and Iowa’s high-scoring attack.

Once again, No. 3 Michigan rose to the occasion and made another statement in its quest for the regular-season conference crown by stifling No. 10 Iowa, 79-57, at Crisler Center.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 79, Iowa 57

And as if Iowa's gaudy offensive numbers weren't motivation enough, the Wolverines were determined to prove last weekend’s defensive effort at Ohio State was an anomaly.

“Yeah, we came out of Columbus with a ‘W,’ but our defensive numbers were terrible,” said senior forward Isaiah Livers, who finished with 16 points. “We went over them and we all just looked at each other and shook our head because that's not us.

“We knew Iowa was coming into our house, the highest-scoring Big Ten team, and it was the perfect challenge. It felt like it was set up this way on purpose for us to prove ourselves and we took the challenge.”

University of Iowa's Jack Nunge fouls University of Michigan's Brandon Johns Jr. in the first half.

The result? The Hawkeyes shot a season-worst 35.6% from the field (21-for-59), finished with a season-low four assists and were held nearly 30 points below their season average of 86 points.

The 57 points were also a season low and the fewest points Iowa scored in a game since a 74-53 loss to Michigan in a 2019 Big Ten tournament quarterfinal.

"I normally show those defensive numbers the next day after the game we played, but I held it in my back pocket till the time I felt was right to inspire a better defensive effort than what we gave against Ohio State," Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. "I felt we got more into scoring than we did into getting stops. I showed film and they all owned it.

"It was great to see that they had their mind made up that we have to give a better defensive performance tonight versus Iowa, who is an excellent offensive team. If we don't, we were going to have some sad faces after the game."

That never came close to happening as the Wolverines clamped down on the Hawkeyes from the start by flustering Garza in the paint, sticking to Iowa's bevy of 3-point shooters and restricting the ball movement. 

The offense, on the other hand, took some time to kick into gear and eventually did thanks to sophomore wing Franz Wagner, whom Iowa couldn't stay in front of.

Wagner continually got to the rim, scored nine points less than four minutes into the second half and ignited a 26-9 run over a nine-minute stretch — most of which took place with freshman center Hunter Dickinson on the bench in foul trouble — that transformed a one-point deficit into a commanding 16-point lead.

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"That second half, man, Franz Wagner came out of nowhere,” Livers said. “No one wanted to stop him. …Franz set the tone, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end. He was a leader in that second half, and he led us those first four minutes. We just followed his lead and we followed the hot hand."

After Wagner scored on a driving layup and buried a 3-pointer, senior guard Eli Brooks drained a deep ball and Dickinson converted at the rim to give the Wolverines their first double-digit lead, 50-39, with 13:48 to play.

The Wolverines kept pushing as their defense turned into offense. Livers threw down a fast-break dunk. Senior guard Chaundee Brown canned a 3-pointer. Junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. knocked down a jumper. By the time the run was over, Michigan was in total control, 62-46, with 8:14 to go.

University of Michigan's Franz Wagner drives around  University of Iowa's Luka Garza in the second half.

From there, Michigan’s lead never dipped below 14 as the Wolverines (17-1, 12-1 Big Ten) coasted to their sixth straight win and second consecutive top-10 triumph.

Wagner finished with 21 points and Dickinson outplayed Garza to the tune of 14 points and eight rebounds for Michigan, which moved another step closer to claiming the Big Ten regular-season title.

Garza had 16 points on 19 shots, Jordan Bohannon added 13 points and Joe Wieskamp scored 11 for Iowa (17-7, 11-6), which saw Jack Nunge and Connor McCaffery go down with injuries.

“Our defense was really good in the first half and it was really good the first four minutes of the second half and then we fell apart,” Garza said. “I was missing shots I normally make all the time and some guys were also missing shots they normally make. I think we let that affect our defense and then we just couldn’t keep up with them.”

Michigan’s defense sent a message from the get-go. Dickinson opened the game by getting back-to-back stops against Garza and the Wolverines forced the Hawkeyes to miss their first five shot attempts.

But after Dickinson picked up an early foul and checked out, Iowa attacked the paint to take an 11-7 lead with 14:05 left in the first half and Michigan waded through a clunky offensive stretch where it struggled to finish at the rim. That changed once Dickinson came back in and scored twice in paint to put Michigan up, 21-17, at the 6:46 mark.

Despite the offense scuffling at times and multiple reviews and stoppages disrupting the game flow, the defense never relented. Michigan took a 32-29 lead into the break as Dickinson and the Wolverines locked up Garza and the Hawkeyes and essentially threw away the key.

"Tonight was a battle. I'm still tired after that game,” Dickinson said. “I think that's why we all came to Michigan is for these kinds of games.

“We had a lot of fun out there. Coach (Howard) always says at the end of his speeches, ‘Go out there and have some fun.’ I think when we're sharing the ball and playing defense like that, I think that's when basketball is the most fun.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins