The UConn Huskies proved they deserved the No. 1 ranking with a dominant performance against No. 7 Louisville on Monday, and they intended to hold on to that ranking at home in a late-season non-conference match up with Big Ten foe Michigan.
The Huskies entered the game on an 11-game win streak vs. non-conference foes and 14 straight against non-conference teams at home. They hoped to avoid a letdown against the Wolverines.
Michigan came into the game struggling as of late, losers of five of their last seven contests after showing promise early in the season.
The Wolverines gave the Big Blue faithful reason to believe the program had restored its glory when they knocked off two different No. 4 ranked teams earlier in the season. They beat both UCLA and Duke, but their recent slide has them on the bubble for an NCAA tourney berth.
UConn was expected to dominate this game but found itself in a dogfight with a group of angry Wolverines. The Huskies jumped out to an 8-1 lead, but Michigan kept clawing back and tied the game at 14 apiece at the 11:40 mark.
Michigan came in focused and disciplined, committing no turnovers while UConn committed five uncharacteristic turnovers early. UConn’s immense size advantage was evident early on, with Hasheem Thabeet getting three blocks during the first eight minutes, but Michigan continued to execute its game plan.
Michigan would use their zone defenses in an attempt to confuse and slow down the No. 1 Huskies. The Wolverines would switch between a 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone frequently while forcing turnovers and using their own inside-outside combination.
UConn would employ a three-guard offense for the entirety of the game.
Late in the first half, Michigan would take the lead after forcing UConn to eight turnovers. The Wolverines went on a 9-0 run and took a 29-21 lead with 3:48 left in the half.
UConn, however, would put together a run of its own to close the first half. The Huskies gained momentum and began to assert themselves in the last two minutes, going on an 8-0 run.
The first half ended with Michigan leading 34-33. The Wolverines were lead by Stu Douglass, who came off the bench with 11 points. Hasheem Thabeet led the way for UConn with 11 points and four blocked shots.
As the second half began, the Michigan Wolverines, having already knocked off two different teams in the top five, had the No. 1 squarely within its sights and aimed to pull the trigger.
The Huskies were the ones that came out firing at the start of the second half, but Michigan held its own ground. With 14 minutes left in the second half, Michigan had an improbable 43-39 lead.
The No. 1 Huskies would not be pushed around on their home floor, however, as Michigan began to struggle with a rapidly constricting UConn defense.
UConn would go on an 8-0 run to re-take the lead, but Michigan would continue to stay in the game, trailing just 55-47 with eight minutes left.
The Wolverines would not go away, despite an increasingly dominant performance by UConn’s Hasheem Thabeet. At 3:48 left in the game, the Wolverines were well within range, only down 57-53.
This was a critical junction for Michigan, as they couldn’t afford to give UConn a bigger lead. They wouldn’t, but UConn would not budge either. With 1:30 left, Connecticut led by five points and began to run out the clock.
Michigan was forced to foul, and the fate of UConn’s newly acquired No. 1 ranking was now left up to its free throw shooting ability. Make the free throws and keep the No. 1 ranking, pure and simple.
UConn did make its free throws, as Michigan continued to try and pull off an improbable upset. The Wolverines gave the Huskies all they could handle, but in the end it wasn’t enough and UConn held its ground, winning by a final score of 69-61.
Give the Wolverines credit, John Beileine’s squad came in with a solid game plan and executed it to perfection. The Huskies were just too tough and too resilient.
Michigan was led by valiant performances by Manny Harris and Stu Douglass. Douglass came off the bench to score 20 points, going 6-of-8 from three point range.
Connecticut would get another stellar performance from 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet, who had a double-double with 17 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks. Jerome Dyson had 19 points for the Huskies.
The Wolverines proved they deserve a berth in the field of 64, while the UConn Huskies proved that they deserve the title of the best team in the nation.