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Neal Rothschild: Validation for a team with everything to prove

Teresa Mathew/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 18, 2014

MADISON — It didn’t come in Ames, Iowa, and it didn’t come in Puerto Rico. It didn’t come in Durham, N.C., and it didn’t come at home against No. 1 Arizona.

It came in an even more unlikely place.

The Michigan men’s basketball team’s statement win came in the Kohl Center of all places, against the third-ranked team in a place the Wolverines hadn’t won since an upstart musician from McComb, Miss. released the album …Baby One More Time.

“I use the word redemption a little bit,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “These guys walked into there, and I’ve walked into locker rooms before, and it haunts you every year about what happened on the road against a certain team.”

The signature road win? Michigan hadn’t been able to get it this season. A win against a ranked team? Close, but no résumé booster.

The non-conference season for Michigan came and went, and in the end, the Wolverines had yet to show college basketball that they were a threat, a legitimate force. As in out-rebounding-and-out-shooting-the-third-best-team-in-the-country-on-the-road threatening.

After Mitch McGary was ruled out, it seemed that the window to make the statement had closed. To get an idea of the miniscule size of the crack in the window, Michigan had zero top-5 road wins since 1964 entering Saturday.

The Wolverines had their chances to show that replacing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. was feasible. They had a late lead against Iowa State, a team that would win its first 14 games. They had another chance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off during a time of the year when the top teams assert themselves by winning a tournament-style championship. But instead of a statement, there was a one-possession loss to Charlotte. Then there was a lead lost down the stretch against the Wildcats.

After that, they’d have to take on every challenge minus McGary. The early returns in Big Ten play were inconclusive despite the 4-0 start. They picked up some important wins, but nothing against high-caliber teams.

Appropriately, the line for the game was Wisconsin by eight.

But all of a sudden, Michigan found itself up 60-45 with ten minutes left on Saturday. Up 13 with eight minutes to play? They still had it.

Until they didn’t. Four minutes and a 10-0 Badgers run turned the Wolverines’ chances of winning from very likely to very much in doubt. Michigan’s offensive strategy had become to keep shooting from deep and pray that enough of them went down so that the lead didn’t get away.

The window that had somehow been pried so far open had gotten greased up and was falling fast. When else would Michigan be in such good position to grab a top-5 road win?

“Any time you can wipe down a lead like that and get it to one? I’d do backflips if I could still do them,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.

It would have been a full 15 years since Michigan had last won in Madison.

“I thought when they made that run, I saw a couple of the heads go down,” Beilein said. “And they needed to pick it up. We had to challenge them to say, ‘We’re going to win this game, and we’re going to win the game by being aggressive. And if you’re afraid to shoot it, you’re afraid to take it at them, then get out of the game.’

“And nobody checked out.”

Despite missing five of his last six shots, Stauskas kept shooting. With the lead down to one, he hit a step-back 3-pointer, the dagger.

Stauskas was the player who wouldn’t be denied from a team that seemed destined to be denied and has been all season. As Wisconsin fouled to prolong the game in the final minute, Stauskas sprinted to the ball each time and defied the double team so that he could take the foul shots. He made all six. And so they won.

The Badgers haven’t just been more skilled than Michigan over the years, they’ve been Stronger. They haven’t just been unhealthy for Michigan, they’ve been Toxic.

And heading into Saturday, it seemed that a win against Wisconsin — and a statement to the college basketball world that Michigan has something great to offer this year — wouldn’t come ‘Till The World Ends.

But afterward, it was time to party like it was 1999.

Rothschild can be reached at nealroth@umich.edu or on Twitter @nrothschild3


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