After letting lead slip away at Central Florida, Wolverines focus on limiting errors
The Wolverines appeared like they were on their way to boosting their nonconference resume.
They opened the second half with a 9-1 run to grab a 12-point lead and seemed to be seizing control against Central Florida at the Addition Financial Arena in Orlando, Florida.
But within the blink of an eye, everything started to go sideways. Behind the hot hands of Darin Green Jr. and Brandon Mahan, the Knights caught fire and ripped off an 18-2 run over a four-minute, four-second stretch to take a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
“We made too many mistakes during that span,” fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks said after Thursday’s 85-71 loss. “We let them back in the game.
“We're going to make mistakes playing basketball, but we just can't make mistakes back-to-back and just allow teams to go on runs.”
The tide started to turn when Mahan, who scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half, hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key over Brooks. That ignited a long-range barrage where Green hit a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer over grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones, who was late to switch and contest the shot.
Mahan struck once again from deep, this time on a step-back 3-pointer that caused Brooks to lose his footing and forced coach Juwan Howard to call a timeout to calm his team down. However, it didn’t work as the Wolverines continued to fall apart.
On the ensuing possession, Michigan’s half-court set went nowhere and the ball was knocked out of bounds late in the shot clock by UCF. That forced Brooks to put up a rushed 3-pointer that was swatted and led to a fast-break dunk for Green.
After that basket, the ball slipped out of Brooks’ hands on the inbounds pass and bounced right to Green. He scooped it up and tossed it to C.J. Walker for a dunk that capped a string of 13 unanswered points.
“We let them hit shots and the crowd noise get to us, and we started making a lot of mental mistakes that we usually don't make,” Jones said. “Once those mistakes compound with each other (and) you've got the other team hitting shots like they were, it's going be hard to beat those guys.”
Green, who poured in a career-high 27 points, provided the finishing touches on the game-changing run. He collapsed the defense, drew multiple defenders on a dribble drive and dumped off a pass in the paint to Jamille Reynolds for an and-1 layup.
On the next possession, Green got a mismatch with sophomore center Hunter Dickinson out on the perimeter and promptly took advantage. He drained a deep 3-pointer over a weak contest during a stretch where UCF made eight consecutive shots.
“You just can't make mistakes back-to-back. If we give those guys an open shot, we can't give them two in a row,” Jones said. “We've got to be a two-half team. The first half we did pretty good job. We had a lot of contests. The second half came around and we weren't contesting as much. We started losing our assignments. We weren't rotating. We stopped talking as a team.
“That just came with the crowd noise. I feel like me, Hunter and Eli have got to do a better job of coaching the younger guys. They haven't been in that type of environment. We've been in it before so that's something we've got to keep pounding on ourselves.”
The Wolverines managed to cut the deficit to one twice but the defense continued to let them down as the Knights shot a scorching 72% from the field (18-for-25) in the second half and went 8-for-8 from deep after halftime.
After Jones beat the shot clock with a deep 3-pointer, UCF’s Darius Johnson quickly answered by racing down the floor and scoring a layup before Michigan’s defense could get set. Then after Brooks flipped up a floater to make it a one-point game again, Mahan used a screen to get enough space and fire off another 3-pointer.
The struggles continued in crunch time as UCF kept making Michigan pay for every breakdown. The Wolverines left Green all alone and he buried a wide-open 3-pointer. After Brooks drained a deep ball to make it a six-point game with 2:21 remaining, he lost track of Mahan and gave up a clean look on the next possession.
“You never can play a mistake-free basketball game. Unfortunately, the mistakes that happened are at times when you're trying to either make a run back in the game or get a defensive stop,” Howard said. “We will clean it up. I trust we will get better with it. There's always growing pains throughout the season. And there's always learning moments throughout the season, whether you win or lose.”
Jones felt that fatigue played a factor in the mental miscues — a notion Howard didn’t dismiss — and said the players need to do a better job of raising their hands to get a breather when needed.
But with the resumption of Big Ten play up next, the Wolverines (7-5) will need to do a much better job of limiting the mistakes and not letting them snowball during opponents' runs if they want to be competitive in the conference race.
“We haven't had the start that we wanted to," Jones said, "but we can make a big run if we come together as a team.
“We've got some stuff that definitely could be fixed. We're not hitting the panic button. …It's just about putting it together for conference play.”