Nov. 9, 2013
By Jenny Herstein, U-M Public & Media Relations
For the first 20 minutes of the University of Michigan men's basketball team's 69-42 win against UMass-Lowell on Friday (Nov. 8), the Wolverines were finding it difficult to score. As the first half drew to a close, Michigan had connected on only 26 percent (6-for-23) of its field goal attempts and made only one of nine three-point attempts (11 percent). Even on free throws, the team shot just 10-for-15 (67 percent).
On a night when the 2012-13 Michigan team's Final Four run was celebrated with the raising of a new banner, the crowd at Crisler Center was eagerly awaiting the chance to see what the new squad could do. As the half ended with Michigan tied 23-23 against UMass-Lowell -- a team playing its first game as an NCAA Division I program -- it seemed as though the evening had all the makings of a disappointment.
"We were one and nine in the first half, shot awful from wherever we were, and got a little antsy at times with our offense," said head coach John Beilein.
"They did a really good job in the first half executing their game plan, and we just weren't knocking down shots," added sophomore guard Spike Albrecht. "We might have been taking some shots we normally don't take."
But while the offense struggled, the defense was able to keep things in control. Despite the Wolverines' shooting woes, they returned to the locker room before the second half with a tie game.
"The positive thing for us in the first half is that we played really good defense," said sophomore guard Caris LeVert.
"Good thing our defense held them to 33 percent (shooting), 23 points," Beilein added, "or we would have been down at half."
Yet, while Michigan's defense was strong in the first half, it came out with even more energy in the second.
"I think as a team collectively we understand that there's a time for everything," said senior/junior forward Jon Horford. "There's a time for shots to fall and there's a time when shots aren't going to fall. Embracing that is going to be crucial."
The Wolverines embraced their shooting funk by remaining focused on defense.
"Really we just picked up the energy," Albrecht said. "We talked at halftime (about defense), and that's something we really focus on. If we get three straight stops we can get out on offense and go."
While Michigan's defense in the first half prevented the River Hawks from outscoring the Wolverines, in the second half it kept them from scoring at all for just over nine straight minutes.
"The guards in the first half on the ball screens weren't getting up into the opposing guards enough, so it was allowing them to come down at our hedges," Horford explained. "But the guards in the second half got up into the opposing guards. It slowed them down, and it changed everything for us."
With UMass-Lowell unable to score, Michigan began to rediscover its stroke. The Wolverines forced turnovers -- including a shot-clock violation -- and picked up steals that flustered the River Hawks and energized their own offense.
Michigan's 26-2 run began with two free throws from sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, followed by two plays by Horford -- a slam dunk and a step-back jumper -- that brought energy back to the crowd at Crisler Center.
But leading Michigan's offense, with 17 points on the night, was a player who has seen his role greatly expand since he was a part of the Final Four team honored before the game. LeVert, who nearly redshirted his freshman season, provided an occasional spark off the bench in the 2012-13 season as a role player for the Wolverines. On Friday night, he emerged in the starting lineup after scoring in double digits during both of Michigan's exhibition games.
"Caris' role is completely different this year," Albrecht said. "We need him out there scoring for other guys. He's a big play-maker for this team. I think all the work he put in the weight room this summer has helped him tremendously. He's turning himself into a really good player."
In the first half, LeVert notched the team's first field goal and was one of only three players (along with seasoned sophomores Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III) to score for the Wolverines. His high performance came not only on offense but on defense as well, exemplified by his steal that led to Michigan's first points of the game, on free throws from Robinson.
Like his teammates, LeVert did not convert all of his shots in the first half, yet during the second half, in keeping with his team's renewed energy and focus, he was perfect from the floor.
"Caris is a hardworking kid, great kid," said Horford. "He does whatever the coaches say and is extremely skilled and talented. He makes everybody better and we're lucky to have him."
As he continues to work hard, his skill set on the court increases and his talent becomes more apparent.
"His quickness, his second dribble, he just explodes by people," Beilein said. "And then you complement that with a really solid three-point shot, he's a tough close-out. When you're running at him and he's running this way, he's tough to stop."
The combination of an energized defense, Horford's spark, and LeVert's perfect shooting in the second half culminated in an offensive renewal for the Wolverines that led them to a 27-point victory. Despite their early shooting struggles, the young Michigan squad never lost faith.
"We don't worry about that," Albrecht said. "Just move on to the next play."
"It was a huge overcoming-adversity game," Horford added. "In the first half it was so close and a lot of young teams would naturally get into a rut and sulk and get down on themselves. But to be able to overcome it, that's huge, especially for a young team like this. That was a great lesson to see this early in the season. I'm really happy we did."