Travis Conlan, stuck with the worst job of the day, likened it to “being in a graveyard and running into tombstones.” The tombstones were the Indiana players who, in the second half of Sunday’s game, kept smacking into Conlan in order to free a bouncing freshman named A. J. Guyton.
And if they were the tombstones, Guyton was the ghost.
He haunted Michigan — after this loss, he will haunt them all season — like the evil in one of those horror movies, in which the creature gets closer and closer, and you’re just praying for the movie to end before it catches up. On Sunday at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan watched a 20-point second-half lead melt like an April snowman.
Guyton was the heat.
He fired from the corner, he fired from the top of the key. He fired on the run and he fired on the jump. But mostly he fired after one of his teammates banged into a Michigan defender, freeing Guyton for his high, soft shot that swirls in the net like a pebble washing down a drain.
“It was unreal,” gushed Guyton after Indiana’s 84-81 win, in which he scored 31 points, 26 in the second half and overtime. “I haven’t had anything happen like that since high school.”
Yeah? When was that, last week?
Guyton just celebrated his 19th birthday, and, as a freshman, he’s young enough to still be buoyant and smiling and full of emotion, even under a dictator like Bob Knight.
Not that Knight wanted to shut off Guyton’s faucets on Sunday. The kid from Peoria, Ill. — who is listed at 6-feet-1, but has a vertical leap like a scared kangaroo — single- handedly brought Indiana back from the pits. In the second half, Guyton’s shooting cut the Michigan lead from 18 to 16, from 14 to 11, from 11 to 8, from 7 to 4, from 6 to 3 and from 3 to zero just before the buzzer.
And that last one really hurt.
U-M still had a three-point lead, the crowd was on its feet, and the Wolverines held a tight defense for about 18 seconds. But Guyton kept circling, moving, looking for his screen. He found an opening at the top of the key with three seconds left. The ball came to him on the fly, he head-faked, watched Conlan go flying past, then stroked the jumper and saw it kiss through the net.
“That’s as good a play as I’ve ever had a kid make,” Knight said.
The enemy is themselves Of course, if you’re a Michigan fan, you’re hoping it’s something phenomenal enough to make Bob Knight gush. Otherwise, how do you live with blowing a 20- point second-half lead — at home? The Wolverines had already lost a close one to the Hoosiers down in Bloomington, a game in which they were the comeback kids, falling short by two points.
At least in that game, they could be proud of their effort. In this one, the second half kept slipping out of their grasp with every poked rebound, every referee’s whistle, every missed defensive assignment.
“This was the worst,” said Maurice Taylor in the quiet U-M locker room.
“We played the scoreboard and not the possession. . . .
“We need to find the people on this team who want to win.”
Strong words. But then, Sunday’s loss was just the latest inconsistency on a team that is a puzzling 17-7, with some big wins and some embarrassing defeats. And Taylor was no more or less to blame than his teammates. Like them, he had his fine moments, but he had his gasps as well.
Same went for Robert Traylor, who slammed home some thundering dunks but fouled out far too early.
Or Conlan, who made some terrific steals, but missed two important free throws in overtime.
Or Louis Bullock, who made so many key shots except the ones they needed in the closing seconds.
Or Steve Fisher, who did not order his men to foul in the final ticks of regulation with U-M nursing the three-point lead. Why not put Indiana at the line for two shots, then get the ball back? Isn’t that simple math?
“Some like to use that philosophy,” Fisher admitted. “We don’t. In retrospect, I’d have liked to.”
Nobody gets to play in retrospect.
One loss could lead to another
Now, the truth is, this game did not matter much — not as far as championships or rankings are concerned. Both Michigan and Indiana (20-7, 7-6) are far out of the Big Ten title chase, and both are hoping to get into the NCAA tournament with a few more wins that are likely to come.
But it’s always a big deal when Knight’s men in red — with their normal-length shorts — come to town to take on the baggy-panted Wolverines. And a loss like this has the very real danger of reverberation.
“We have to make sure this loss doesn’t create the atmosphere that loses the next one,” Fisher said.
That’s correct. And while you’re at it, Steve, if you can, make sure the next team doesn’t have some leaping freshman with a streaky jump shot who’s just waiting to bust out in a nationally televised game.
Everyone has to visit a graveyard now and then. Nobody wants to make a habit of it.