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December 14, 2013

Wolverines must learn to win the tight battles

When the Wolverines are rolling, they can certainly win big.

Five of Michigan's six victories through the first 10 games of the season have come by at least 24 points, all blowout and cruise-controlled second halves.

But when the Wolverines are forced to play clutch basketball down the stretch, things get a little dicier. Michigan has played in five games that were decided by 10 points or less, and it has lost four of them, the lone victory coming against Florida State in semifinal of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, an 82-80 overtime win.

Saturday's upset bid in Crisler Arena against top-ranked Arizona was not different.

With an eight-point lead with eight minutes to go in a defensive slugfest, the Wolverines saw victory slip through their hands.

After sophomore guard Nik Stauskas hit two free throws to extend Michigan's lead to eight, the Wildcats exploded. During that span, Arizona outscored Michigan 22-12, hitting 7-of-11 shots from the field and winning the rebound battle 7-2, including three offensive rebounds that kept possessions alive.

Some may point to Michigan's lack of offense down the stretch as the biggest cause for concern - but 70 points against a team that hadn't allowed more than 66 in a game this season is pretty impressive.

What the Wolverines are focused on is defense.

"It's experience," redshirt junior forward Jon Horford said. "It's repetition. It's that mental toughness, guys knowing that it's all about defensive stops in that moment. You can think offensively, but we need defensive stops, and that is the bottom line. That is being in the gaps, being on your man, not letting the guy with the ball be comfortable, boxing out. We have to finish."

Against one of the most athletic and imposing teams in the country, the young Wolverines played stalwart defense for 32 minutes.

Before the Wildcats' run, Michigan had limited them to just 50 points on 20-of-50 shooting from the floor (40.0 percent) against a team that hit 50.2 percent of its shots in its first 10 games.

But Arizona averaged 1.7 points per possession in the final eight minutes. For comparison, Gonzaga leads the country in that statistic, averaging 1.2 points per possession.

"It was all about our defense late," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We have to take better angles, defend better so people can't get the ball in their sweet spots. They got the ball in their sweet spot way too much. It's what our coaches love doing; getting us from this hurdle over the next hurdle. There are plenty of things to grow from."

Now, the Wolverines have to learn how to finish what they started.

"You learn from experience," Stauskas said. "Obviously, this is a big one for all of our freshmen, and even our returning guys. It's just getting tougher down the stretch: rebounding, boxing out. That's the key for us. We gave them too many second-chance opportunities today.

"I don't think anyone on this team is worried. If you look at our losses right now, Duke, we were there down the stretch; Iowa State, we were right there; Charlotte, we were right there; and we were again today. It's just a matter of closing out games right now, which is something we haven't done. We're right there. It's just paying more attention to detail and making big plays down the stretch."

The players hate to lose - that is certainly clear. But there was a sense of encouragement surrounding the Wolverines after Saturday's loss.

"We're improving by the week," Horford said. "We played much better. Two weeks ago, if we played them, we would have lost by 15.

"Most definitely progress. You can be disappointed about the loss, but that won't do anything. You have to take away from this game all the positive things we saw, the cohesiveness of the team, the talking. It was a positive energy. If we can keep that going forward, we'll win a lot of games."

"They're the No. 1 team in the country, and it's not like they blew us out of the water today," Stauskas added. "It was a two-point game, and we had them. We can't hang our heads low. We have to be confident and continue to work. Down the stretch of the season, I think we're going to win those games."


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