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Big-shot Irvin sparks comeback win

Paul Sherman/Daily
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BY DANIEL WASSERMAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published February 12, 2014

COLUMBUS — At the 13:41 mark of the second half, Michigan coach John Beilein was in desperate need of inspired play, and it certainly wasn’t coming from Glenn Robinson III.

Trailing 41-35, the sophomore forward was just 2-of-9 from the floor, with most of those misses coming from ill-advised jumpers, point-blank misses or blocked layups. With Robinson’s confidence slipping by the second in a hostile environment, Beilein pulled the veteran sophomore for a freshman.

And Zak Irvin didn’t let the headman down. Over the next 7:20, with Robinson looking on from the bench, Irvin appeared in the scorebook only once, but it was a big one. His 3-pointer with just fewer than 12 minutes remaining narrowed the 15th-ranked Wolverines’ deficit to three. And by the time he checked out at the 6:21 mark, Michigan had a 51-50 lead.

“Obviously that was a big shot,” said fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan. “But just the energy that he brings to everyone on the court — it picks the whole team up.”

Irvin’s 10 points in 20 minutes proved more monumental than it showed on the boxscore as the Wolverines beat No. 22 Ohio State, 70-60 — their first win in Columbus since 2003.

Make no mistake, Irvin’s play wasn’t perfect. His matchup on the defensive end, forward LaQuinton Ross, scored a game-high 24 points, and while many of those baskets can’t be pinned on Irvin, the freshman did surrender multiple easy layups.

But it was his play — a breath of fresh air from a team that was lacking a real sparkplug — that seemingly saved Michigan from losing a game that, given the way Ohio State played, had no business losing.

The second-half boost wasn’t the first time Irvin’s play was the difference maker.

“He’s done that for us for this whole stretch of the Big Ten,” Morgan said.

Tuesday night was the guard’s third consecutive game scoring in double figures, coming on the heels of a 19-point performance at Iowa and a 16-point first half against Nebraska last week. In early January, he dropped 15 points at Minnesota while the team’s key scorers struggled. And even in low-scoring nights, such as a three-point affair at Michigan State, his lone 3-pointer came at a much-needed time.

In fact, it wasn’t even the first time that he came up huge on Tuesday night. Seven minutes into the contest, the Buckeyes had turned a 5-5 tie into a 13-5 lead thanks to an array of highlight-reel dunks. Parting like the red sea and failing to hustle back in transition, Michigan’s defensive lapses had Value City Arena rocking. Shades of Saturday’s loss to the Hawkeyes flashed through the building, as it looked like Ohio State had delivered an early knockout blow.

Just like the first half, Irvin replaced a struggling Robinson in the second half. On his first offensive possession of the game, he knocked down a 3-pointer. It’s difficult to gauge the full magnitude of a make with so much time to play, but it was enough to keep the Wolverines in the game, where they stayed — despite a horrendous 32.1-percent shooting mark in the first half — until Irvin’s second-half stint.

“He’s been a typical freshman in some ways, but the young man can make a shot,” Beilein said. “He can just make a shot. He comes in he just finds the bottom of the basket … He just makes shots.”

The freshman’s efficient night in the hostile setting — 2-for-3 from the field and 4-of-5 from the charity stripe — displayed a poise matched only by a fellow freshman, point guard Derrick Walton Jr., who commanded the offense to the tune of 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in place of sophomore Spike Albrecht.

And if Robinson’s struggles continue — the sophomore shot 3-for-10 while failing to score in double figures for the fifth time in six games — Irvin may find himself on the floor for more long stretches of time.

And unlike Walton, if Irvin keeps shooting like he has, it would hardly be a simple long-term project.