STATE COLLEGE — Jordan Poole cocked his arm back and the Bryce Jordan Center crowd gasped.
The freshman guard finished the fastbreak dunk with a flush, putting Penn State forward Julian Moore on a poster and sending the Michigan men’s basketball team well on its way to a statement win, as the 17th-ranked Wolverines (12-5 Big Ten, 23-7 overall) took down a resurgent Penn State, 72-63 Wednesday night.
And just for a little effect, the always-affable Poole turned and mean-mugged the camera. It was the look of a freshman who was more than happy to ruin Senior Night in State College.
“I definitely knew the camera was right there,” Poole joked after the game.
Once again Poole lifted Michigan with a much-needed offensive spark, finishing with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. Once again, the Wolverines’ defense carried them to a big win. And once again, Michigan showed signs of peaking as the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament approach.
“I think (Poole is) heading in the right direction, that’s for sure, of what winning basketball really looks like,” Beilein said. “Part of that is really making simple plays. … He’s sort of learning what to do at the right times. But he’s got so much swag to him, we can teach the other stuff. He’s got so much confidence, we can teach the other stuff. We can’t teach his DNA right now.”
It wasn’t always as smooth as the charismatic freshman made it seem, though, especially offensively.
Michigan turned the ball over five times in its first eight possessions, but kept the Nittany Lions (9-8, 19-11) largely in check on the other end thanks to strong post defense. Penn State seemed content letting redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews, who finished the game with zero points and three turnovers, attack off the dribble. That plan was effective early on, prompting Beilein to turn to freshman guard Jordan Poole and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson to spark the offense.
Both responded emphatically.
First, Robinson dotted a 3-pointer in the face of his defender. Then he cut on the baseline, catching a laser pass and laying it in. Two possessions later, he pump-faked his defender and pulled up for a smooth, mid-range jumper.
Robinson paced the Wolverines in the half, scoring 12 points of his team-high 19 points in the frame.
Poole added a 3-pointer and a lay-in to his highlight reel dunk for eight points of his own in the first half.
But the Nittany Lions wouldn’t go down without a fight. They started the second half with a jumper from star guard Tony Carr, a 3-pointer from forward Lamar Stevens and another three from Carr. The barrage continued, with 10 unanswered points in total to grad a 41-38 lead.
Carr, in particular, grabbed the reigns of the previously sputtering Penn State offense and did his part to rejuvenate it. The Big Ten scoring leader finished with 21 points on 18 shots, but ultimately couldn’t get enough support to turn the tide for good.
“We just knew what he was capable of doing. He’s a great point guard in the Big Ten,” said sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson, the man tasked with guarding Carr for the majority of Wednesday’s game. “He’s putting up great numbers and leading his team to victories. So me being the starting point guard for my team, I just wanted to come in with a defensive mindset to make it contagious. He hit some good shots, but I think, overall, we played some pretty good defense.”
From 18:36 to 13:38 of the second half, Michigan failed to score, offering grim flashbacks to road comeback losses at Northwestern and Ohio State, prompting Beilein to call timeout.
“We seemed like we were tired and didn’t want to play with the same conviction we did in the first half,” Beilein said. “I can’t tell you the timeout worked, but in the last 12 minutes we played with a lot of conviction.”
With Michigan’s back against the walls, suddenly trailing on the road and in need of a basket, junior center Moritz Wagner answered the call. With the shot clock winding down, Wagner nailed a corner three, tying the game back up. He followed that up with another crowd-silencing three two possessions later, wrestling the lead back to the Wolverines.
“Those two buckets were definitely huge,” Poole said. “Obviously we couldn’t get shots to fall. Obviously, the momentum was swinging their way. But he’s a big-time player — he’s been here making big-time shots this year and last year.
Wagner finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds.
The teams traded haymakers as the game headed towards its dawn — a Reaves three, an Abdur-Rahkman answer. A Poole three, a Carr jumper.
It was Robinson who would throw the knockout punch, blocking two key shots at the rim and nailing a transition 3-pointer to extend the lead to nine with just 1:28 left.
“I just feel a little bit more engaged when I step on the floor,” Robinson said. “These are the final minutes and games of my college career. I’m trying to make it all count.”
In the end, with the defense doing its part to hold Penn State in check, Michigan held its slim lead for the final 12:04 of the game.
And yet, with a 12th conference win in tow and just a game left in the regular season, Bryce Jordan Center wasn’t the place for macroscopic reflection on the season. That time will come.
This is a team continuing to improve at the time of year that is paramount.
“The expectation is we’re going to keep getting better,” Beilein said. “If that’s our rule of thumb, we are getting better.”