LOS ANGELES — A lesser man would’ve melted, right there, like a cake left out in the rain.
Bracketville’s final 2 minutes are an ancient demon that delights in plowing through television commercials, teasing Vegas and devouring young souls. With 31 seconds left Saturday night, Michigan down 1 point to Houston in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman missed a jumper. With 6 seconds left and the Wolverines now down 2, No. 12 whiffed on a layup.
Somewhere, the demon cackled. Softly.
“I mean, that’s a layup I have made countless times in my career,” Abdur-Rahkman reflected before the Wolverines (30-7) take on Texas A&M on Thursday in the first of two West Regional semifinals at Staples Center.
“And to know I missed that shot and for it to [have] potentially been my last game, it was tough. But I knew how to get rid of that thought in my head and move on to the next play. I saw there were 3.6 seconds left, and I knew that the game wasn’t over yet.”
The Pennsylvania native wasn’t going to let the demon walk away with the last laugh that easily. On an inbounds play called Indiana, Abdur-Rahkman took a one-handed heave from Isaiah Livers and dribbled to midcourt with 3 seconds left, Michigan trailing 63-61. A pair of defenders closed in at the half-court line. Out of the corner of his eye, the senior saw Jordan Poole flashing to his right.
He drew two defenders with him and dished quickly to No. 2, who let fly from 25 feet. The rest is March Madness history:
Michigan freshman Jordan Poole knocks down thebuzzer beater, lifting the Wolverines over #6 seed Houston 64-63. The buzzer beating 3-pointer was Poole's first basket of the second half. CBS play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler with a great call on the game winning shot! pic.twitter.com/BVV95Onq1a
— 🏀NCAAHoops24/7 (@NCAAHoops247) March 18, 2018
“I’m not really a guy that ever thinks it’s over unless it’s over,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “So if there’s time on the clock, I think we have a chance. That’s just how I am and how I’ve been brought up. And I can’t really change it.”
For every Moe Wagner, you need an Abdur-Rahkman in March. Or three.
Somebody who keeps a level head when the plane bobs and weaves in the headwind, who keeps his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel when the storms roll in.
Because they will. Inevitably.
“I think he’s definitely due,” teammate Ibi Watson said. “I know he’s excited to have the opportunity to play again.
“And I remember just seeing when Duncan [Robinson] had fouled out [against the Cougars], the way he came to the bench and it just looked like, ‘You know, that could’ve been the last time I was on the court in a Michigan jersey.’ ”
‘I think it’s a wake-up call’
Thanks to The Shot, it wasn’t.
A toast, then. To March escapes.
To second chances.
“I think it’s a wake-up call that it was almost over,” Abdur-Rahkman reflected. “Like that.”
And here’s the scary thing: There’s another gear there, somewhere, if they can find it. A pair of games in, and coach John Beilein’s Wolverines still haven’t played at anywhere near their peak in the Big Dance — and certainly not with the clinical, almost merciless streak they’d flashed over the final three outings at Madison Square Garden earlier in the month.
Other than perhaps Wagner, nobody seemed to hit the metaphorical Wichita wall harder than Abdur-Rahkman. In his nine games before the NCAA tourney, the 6-foot-4 wing guard had been connecting at a rate of 52 percent from the floor and 44.9 percent from 3-point range while averaging 16.3 points. Against Montana and Houston, he shot 26.9 percent (7 for 26) from the floor and 8.3 percent (1 for 12) beyond the arc, averaging 11.5 points.
“We’ve got to go out there and have that sense of urgency right from the beginning,” said the Michigan senior, a 34.7 percent lifetime shooter in Bracketville and a career 23.3 percent shooter from beyond the arc during March Madness. “Not just the last couple seconds or the last couple minutes of the game.”
‘A clear mind helps’
Michigan’s team-wide transformation into lights-out stoppers under new assistant coach Luke Yaklich has gotten a lot of ink lately, and deservedly so. But few Wolverines veterans have come as far as No. 12 has on that front over the last 10 months. Or put in more elbow grease toward the cause.
Last season, Abdur-Rahkman scored a 106.7 defensive rating — fourth lowest on the squad — from the metrics wizards at Sports-Reference.com, which rates players on points allowed per 100 possessions. The lower the defensive number, the better, and this March, Abdur-Rahkman takes a much-improved 99.4 rating into the Sweet 16.
‘If you make a mistake, move forward, it’s going to be all right. It’s a long game.’
— Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on his approach to March Madness
“I’ve been focusing a little bit more on defense, trying to translate it into offense,” Abdur-Rahkman explained. “And try not to think about [it], so when I’m not making shots, don’t let it affect your defense.”
Yaklich reshaped the mental process and approach; Abdur-Rahkman credits strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson with helping to smooth over the rough edges on the physical side. Last fall, No. 12 set a Michigan record in the lane agility drill by completing it in 9.96 seconds, beating the mark of 10.10 set by Tim Hardaway Jr.
“I’m fast, vertically, up and down, but side-to-side, I needed to get quicker,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “So I definitely worked on that. So it seems like it’s been paying off.”
To put that 9.96 in some context, John Wall posted a 10.84 in the drill at the 2010 NBA Combine; Russell Westbrook did it in 10.98 two years prior to that. Tony Allen, one of the best perimeter defenders in pro ball over the last decade, ran it in 10.70 back in 2004.
“I think I was 2 seconds slower last year,” Abdur-Rahkman said.
“A lot of guys dwell on the past or things like that, but I’m just, ‘Move forward, keep moving forward.’ If you make a mistake, move forward, it’s going to be all right. It’s a long game.
“It’s not like a bunch of other sports — one mistake is not going to hurt as bad as a whole bunch. A clear mind helps.”
A strong heart does, too.