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Sunday, September 21, 2014

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Second-half surge pushes Wolverines past Northwestern

By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 5, 2014

While the first few inches of an expected foot of snow fell outside Crisler Center on Sunday afternoon, the Michigan men’s basketball team couldn’t get anything to fall from outside the arc.

But in the second half, the Wolverines finally broke out thanks to a predictable tandem of scorers, sophomores Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who carried Michigan to a 74-51 win over Northwestern in its Big Ten home opener.

In somewhat of a sluggish affair, the Wolverines (2-0 Big Ten, 10-4 overall) connected on just one of their eight 3-point attempts in the first half, but fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan and freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. gave Michigan unexpected boosts on the offensive end, combining for 14 first-half points — enough to propel the Wolverines to a seven-point halftime lead.

Redshirt junior Jon Horford and freshman guard Zak Irvin, whose breakout performances led Michigan in a win over Minnesota on Thursday night, took back seats to Walton and Morgan. The pair combined for 19 points on Sunday. Walton scored the Wolverines’ first two baskets, while Morgan keyed what would become the deciding stretch for Michigan midway through the first half. The senior finished with eight points with no misses from the field and also added eight boards, while Walton totaled 11 points.

More importantly, the point guard turned the ball over just twice in 25 minutes, while still managing to create offense for both himself and his teammates. Walton is averaging just 1.2 turnovers over the past five games while showing a knack for getting into the lane and drawing fouls.

He converted five of his six shots from the charity stripe Sunday.

“The game is really starting to slow down for him,” said sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht. “He can see it, I can see it. He’s staying aggressive, getting two feet in the paint, getting everyone involved.

“Something the coaches have stressed to him big time is staying aggressive but still making great decisions, and that’s something he’s done great the first two games in the Big Ten.”

After a back-and-forth 10 minutes to start the game, Michigan finally cracked open a healthy margin. Leading 11-10 just before the midway point of the first half, Albrecht carried a steal the length of the court before stopping short of the basket and dropping a behind-the-back pass to a trailing Stauskas for an easy two-handed flush, inciting the largest cheer of the afternoon in an otherwise dormant Crisler Center.

Playing in a half-filled arena due to the weather, the dunk propelled the Wolverines to a 12-3 run. Morgan, who assumed the starting ‘5’ position last week when it was announced that sophomore Mitch McGary would be sidelined with an upcoming back surgery, led the stretch with six points of his own.

“We know we need a post presence every game, but we’re in the business of winning,” Horford said. “We don’t really care where it comes from, whether it be Jordan or myself. … As long as it’s there and we’re getting wins, we’ll take it.”

Morgan’s production tapered off in the second half, which helped give way to Horford. The redshirt junior finished with a productive seven points and eight rebounds, and the frontcourt pair finished with a combined 15 points and 16 boards.

“We both did a little something today,” Horford said. “We’ll take that every game. We can win with that.”

Stauskas, who scored a quiet seven points in the first half, came alive in the second to finish with a game-high 18 points. His two 3-pointers helped Michigan bury the Wildcats (0-2, 7-8), who trailed by just six points five minutes into the second half before the Wolverines broke the game open.

A 12-4 run that extended Michigan’s lead to 51-35 just after the half’s second official timeout was highlighted by a monstrous alley-oop from Irvin to Robinson on a fast-break, part of the sophomore’s 12-point effort.

Northwestern’s top offensive weapon, Drew Crawford, led all first-half scorers with 13 points but added just four more — while turning the ball over three times — after the break. The do-everything wing was also tasked with guarding Stauskas, who simply wore him down.

“Part of that is them. They’re a good team. They did a good job defensively and rotated some guys on him,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins about Michigan’s strategy to defend Crawford. “But I just thought, more than anything, Drew got a little tired. He had to do everything for us in the first half.”

Meanwhile, by the end of the game, the Wolverines’s 3-point shooting had warmed up so much that even redshirt sophomore forward Max Bielfeldt connected from the top of the arc with just over a minute left — just the second trey of his career — giving the home team a misleading 6-of-18 mark from distance.