INDIANAPOLIS -- The Yes Face is working for the Michigan Wolverines.
That is coach John Beilein’s phrase for the positive visage he wants to see at all times during games in his team’s huddles. It’s a term that dates back more than 200 years, to Thomas Jefferson crossing a flooded river on horseback -- but as Beilein himself said, “It’s a long story.”
The shorter version: No bad vibes allowed. Look positive and look confident, no matter what the scoreboard says.
Friday against Illinois, there were ample opportunities for No Faces from the Wolverines. They played a miserable first half and were down 11 at intermission. They trailed for 24:19 of the game’s 40 minutes. They trailed by more than six points for 17:31 of that time.
But even as the frustration mounted, the faces still said Yes.
“It’s just showing that you believe, and there’s power in it,” Beilein said. “We have some frowners on the team, the coach can be a frowner. We need to stop frowning. We need to just play through and show that Yes Face all the time. Yes, I can do it.”
Turned out Michigan could do it. Could come all the way back and beat Illinois 60-55, using an 18-4 closing run to win in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
And that will lead to the most important Yes Faces of all -- from the NCAA tournament selection committee. With this win, the Wolverines are in.
“It’s a huge win,” guard Zack Novak said.
It’s also a difficult loss for Illinois, which once again went vast stretches of time getting very little out of its offense and nothing in transition. The Illini are probably still in the Big Dance, but they’ll at least have to deal with 48 hours of nagging doubt until the field is released.
“Very disappointing, very sad,” coach Bruce Weber said. “But just got to hope for the best now that we'll be able to play basketball next week.”
Michigan gets to turn around and play basketball again Saturday, against No. 1 Ohio State. The Buckeyes have beaten their arch rivals twice already this season, but the third time around could be tricky. For one thing, the thin Buckeyes went a grueling 45 minutes against Northwestern on Friday in the quarterfinals, with star center Jared Sullinger playing all of them.
“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” said guard Tim Hardaway Jr.
The son of the former NBA all-star was the hero for Michigan on Friday. He shook off a rough shooting day -- the power of the Yes Face -- to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer for the Wolverines with 1:42 remaining. Hardaway then added two free throws with 48 seconds left to help keep the Illini at bay.
At the time Hardaway rose up for the biggest shot of Michigan’s season, he was 3 for 10 from the field. But with his dad sitting courtside doing radio analysis, the freshman didn’t shy away from the pressure. Hardaway locked in on his fundamentals, getting great lift for the shot and holding his follow-through until the ball ripped the net.
“He made big play after big play,” Novak said. “He’s as competitive as any kid I’ve ever seen.”
Hardaway’s progress has been instrumental to Michigan’s late-season charge from a likely NIT team to a lock for the NCAAs. The Wolverines have won seven of their last nine games, and in that time Hardaway has averaged 18.9 points and made 29 of 54 3-point shots.
Hardaway finished with 16 Friday and had plenty of support on the offensive end. Darius Morris had 17 points and seven assists. Novak had 14. Stu Douglass and Evan Smotrycz only combined to make three of nine shots, but they were all 3s and all part of Michigan’s persistent comeback.
For the longest time, it looked like the Wolverines would never get over the hump -- but more importantly, they refused to be blown out. Down nine for a large percentage of the second half, they rope-a-doped just long enough to stay within striking range when the shots finally began to fall.
“The second half just staying at nine points, it could have got to be 15 or 16,” Beilein said. “People will talk about the run that we made. It was that sustaining where we were the first 10 minutes, 12 minutes of the second half that I thought were just as key so that we could be in position to be in position. We don't get this win if we had to come back from 15.”
And if the Wolverines don’t get this win, they might have been on the outside looking in Sunday. Chalk this vital victory up to the power of the Yes Face.