By Kierstin Lindkvist
The Michigan Wolverines’ second-half struggles ended their Big Ten tournament run against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights — marking the first time in history that the lower seed has won the first three games. Entering the tournament, the higher seeds in the first three games (Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan) were a combined 4-0 against their lower-seeded foes, No. 13 Ohio State, No. 14 Minnesota and No. 9 Rutgers, respectively.
ESPN’s Bracketology now lists the Wolverines as one of the next four out of the NCAA Tournament, while the Scarlet Knights still have a shot to make it in. Michigan head coach Juwan Howard says they came into this match-up with a one-game series mentality, but are holding out for a chance to continue in the postseason.
“Yes, they want to continue to keep playing. I want to see them playing, and I want to be out there coaching them in the postseason,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be with any other group but this group of young men that I’m so proud of. We’ll go back home. We’ll talk about what’s the plan for the future, and we’ll go from there.”
Michigan’s 22 second-half points were a season low for the final 20 minutes, superseding the Wolverines’ 23 points in the second half against Virginia on Nov. 29. The Wolverines shot .348 from the field, marking just the third time all season Michigan shot below 35% from the field and first since Jan. 7 (.345 at Michigan State).
Kobe Bufkin only had nine points and five assists in this contest — a low showing compared with his past three appearances, including a career-high 28 points against Wisconsin on Feb. 26. He and junior center Hunter Dickinson had one recurring word to describe their ball-handling and second-half shooting: unacceptable.
“I probably played my worst brand of basketball on the worst day to play it,” Bufkin said. “Seven turnovers is unacceptable.”
“It is a little deflating,” Dickinson added. “Just miscommunication between us, the guys out there. Unacceptable.”
The Wolverines showed promise in the first half of this contest, shooting 49% from field goal range and holding a 3-point lead over the Scarlet Knights.
However, things turned sour quickly when Rutgers began forcing turnovers and slowing Michigan down the stretch. That, coupled with a 12-0 run, was the deciding blow for Michigan.
Dickinson scored nearly half of the Wolverines’ points — a game-high 24 points, posting his 13th 20-point game this season and the 33rd of his career. Despite his good showing, he said it’s important for the team to make every possession count.
“When you give them another 12 extra opportunities on top of that, that’s 26 extra possessions for them, and that’s super hard for any team to try to come back from,” he said. “Every little mistake really adds up in the end, so you’ve got to try to take every possession and have that possession mean everything for you.”
“I think it was just a really good experience for them to realize how much these opportunities mean and how quickly they can go, especially once you get to March when you’ve only got one game,” Dickinson said.
The Wolverines end the year 11-9 in the conference and 17-15 overall on a three-game losing streak.