Michigan basketball reserves Eso Akunne and Blake McLimans fight into rotation
The Michigan basketball team has had its share of ups and downs offensively this season.
Reserve juniors Eso Akunne and Blake McLimans, though, have been perfect.
Akunne — a 6-2 junior out of Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor — and the 6-foot-10 McLimans have combined to shoot 8-for-8 coming off the bench this season.
In a 76-66 victory Saturday against Iowa State, the pair went 4-for-4 for 10 points, sparking a late first-half run.
"I just have always had the approach of staying ready," Akunne said. "Just in case Coach calls."
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
With Michigan muddling through a lackluster first-half stretch that allowed Iowa State to briefly own a two-point edge at one point in the first half, Michigan coach John Beilein called.
Akunne entered the game firing, immediately knocking down a 3-pointer to kill the Cyclones' rally and kickstart Michigan.
Two minutes later, McLimans made his presence felt with a layup inside to make it eight consecutive Michigan points. And after Iowa State ended a 10-0 spurt with a layup inside, McLimans kept the pressure on, knocking down a 3-pointer with 22 seconds to go in the half, capping a 13-2 Michigan close and giving the Wolverines control.
It's been a long journey for both players since arriving at Michigan prior to the 2009-10 season. But, for now anyway, persistence seems to be paying off.
"Whenever the coach calls our number, we just want to get in there and do whatever we can to help the team win," McLimans said. "It's not that difficult, you just always have to be ready.
"You know your role and you get in there, even if it's for two or three minutes. You do whatever you can for those two to three minutes to help the team."
The roles Akunne and McLimans are serving at Michigan stand as sharp contrasts to how things once were.
McLimans was a three-year starter at Hamburg (N.Y.) High School before moving on to prep school at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.
As for Akunne, he grew up as a player less than 10 miles from Crisler Arena, and was a prep star for four years at Father Gabriel Richard — putting up 17 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists in a sparkling high school career.
But once they got to college, things changed.
Akunne, who came to Michigan as a preferred walk-on, appeared in just seven games as a freshman before cracking the lineup in 16 contests a year ago, averaging 2.5 minutes per appearance.
McLimans' path has been similar. He didn't play a single minute as a freshman before averaging just 5.4 minutes in 25 appearances a year ago.
The adjustment from star to scout team hasn't been easy.
"It's tough," he said. "Everyone coming from high school has a big reputation, and they're so used to playing. In high school, I'd rarely get taken out. I'd get taken out if I had to, if I was in foul trouble or too tired.
"But here, I had trouble getting on the court. But it made me put things in perspective and made me appreciate how lucky everyone is to get the opportunity to play."
Earlier in the week, Beilein said Akunne and McLimans were receiving extended minutes mainly due to foul trouble toward the top-end of Michigan's rotation.
The foul trouble gave them both a chance. But what they've done with that chance has kept them in the rotation early on this season.
"I turn to that bench, and there's some options," Beilein said. "Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not. Two days ago, we had a great big man workout at the end of practice, and Blake was really good in it, so we said, 'Let's give him a chance.'
"(When Akunne came to Michigan), he wasn't the shooter he is now. He's worked really hard on his own to become a shooter."
Akunne and McLimans will likely never become starters, nor will they ever receive more than a handful of minutes.
And, eventually, they'll both miss a shot.
But neither seems concerned. They're playing valuable minutes on a winning basketball team.
It's not perfect. But, for now, it's close enough.
"I've been praying a lot more, that's what's been helping me," Akunne said. "I just want to keep my mind clear and confident and not get so frustrated with itty bitty things that might throw my mind out of whack.
"I just want to continue to gain (Beilein's) trust and be solid when I'm out there."
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