A painfully early wake-up call for a 9 a.m. PST tip-off. A hostile road crowd that braved snowy roads to make it to the arena. A talented opponent desperate for its first marquee win of the season.
There were a lot of reasons to believe top-ranked Arizona might not leave Ann Arbor with its unbeaten record intact on Saturday afternoon, but the Wildcats simply refused to allow it to happen. They fought back from an 11-point early second-half deficit, regained the lead with less than three minutes to play and sank enough free throws down the stretch to escape with a 72-70 victory over Michigan.
Even though Arizona (11-0) already owns a road win at Top 25 San Diego State and a neutral-court win over national power Duke, beating Michigan in Ann Arbor might have been the Wildcats' most impressive performance of the season. Not many teams would have won at Crisler Arena on an afternoon when Glenn Robinson III regained his aggressiveness, Mitch McGary looked fit and spry and Nik Stauskas and Caris Levert continued to score at a high level.
What sparked Arizona's second-half comeback was a renewed commitment to getting the ball into the paint. Whereas Robinson and Stauskas exploited Michigan's quickness advantage at the forward spots in the first half, Arizona better utilized its superior size and length inside after Sean Miller emphasized it at halftime.
Sometimes it was via post-ups for Brandon Ashley or Kaleb Tarczewski on the block. Sometimes it was via slick entry passes from T.J. McConnell or deft passes in the paint from Aaron Gordon. And sometimes the Wildcats gobbled up offensive rebounds and finished around the rim, an area where they were far more effective in the second half.
Ashley had 10 of his team-high 18 points in the second half and Gordon had eight of his 14 points in the final 11 minutes. Tarczewski also had 14 points, as did wing Nick Johnson, whose six free throws in the final 30 seconds helped secure the victory.
"Being down nine at the half, I thought our guys showed a lot of composure and a lot of belief in what we do to put that behind us," Arizona coach Sean Miller told CBS' Greg Anthony in a TV interview after the game. "We felt like we needed to get shots closer to the basket. There's a lot of ways to do it, but I think if you looked at our shot selection, we were playing 10 feet and in."
Squandering an eight-point lead in the final seven minutes will obscure a lot of what Michigan accomplished even in a losing effort.
Robinson exploited his quickness advantage against Ashley, scoring 16 of his 20 points in the first half and forcing Arizona to use Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to defend him after halftime. That helped free up Stauskas (14 points) and LeVert (15 points), both of whom kept the Wolverines out in front most of the second half. And Michigan also got excellent minutes at point guard from Spike Albrecht, who scored 10 points, dished out four assists and earned the right to play over freshman Derrick Walton with the game on the line.
Moral victories aside, however, this outcome will sting Michigan (6-4) for a while.
With losses to Iowa State, Charlotte and Duke already this season, the Wolverines badly needed a marquee win on their non-conference resumé. Instead they'll start Big Ten play in a few weeks with at least four losses and with a comeback overtime win over Florida State serving as the most notable win on their slate.
That's not a problem for Arizona, which has piled up quality wins the past few weeks, none more meaningful than Saturday's.
On an afternoon when the Wildcats had numerous excuses had they lost, they instead found a way to secure a road win befitting a national title contender.
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