LINCOLN — By tip-off Sunday night, the Michigan men’s basketball team already knew its postseason fate. After Iowa’s victory earlier that day, the Wolverines knew a matchup with No. 9 seed Illinois awaited them in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C later this week.
But before Michigan could turn the page on its regular season, the Wolverines had one last task to attend to — a road contest with Nebraska (6-12 Big Ten, 12-18 overall) in Pinnacle Bank Arena.
While Michigan had more games to look forward to, the Cornhuskers had nothing to lose. In their final game of the season, they were playing with house money.
The Wolverines had already beaten Nebraska, 91-85, at Crisler Center in January, but Michigan had won just two games on the road this season. With the stage set for the Cornhuskers to play the spoiler — damaging Michigan’s NCAA Tournament stock — the Wolverines (10-8, 20-11) did what they were expected to do instead, blowing out Nebraska, 93-57, on Sunday night.
“It’s just a testament to how we develop our guys,” said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “We’re so battle-ready for each and every single adjustment that’s thrown at us. Our coaches do a great job of putting us in the right positions, and it’s all about us at that point, just making the right plays.”
Throughout the game, Michigan proved that it was simply on another level, as the Wolverines played their ideal roles for the team.
Walton played the maestro, orchestrating the offense with total command as he finished with a game-high 18 points and a single-game program-record 16 assists for his fourth double-double of the season.
Senior wing Zak Irvin played his right-hand man, taking on the secondary playmaker role to the tune of 15 points with three 3-pointers. He topped off the night by scoring the bucket that clinched his fellow captain Walton’s assist record.
Junior guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman played the energizer, aggressively making moves all over the court. His 13 points were highlighted by a stretch of five consecutive points in the opening five minutes when he slammed home a dunk before Walton set him up for an open 3, which Abdur-Rahkman hit.
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson played the reliable big men they have become, nailing four 3-pointers and collecting nine rebounds while commanding the paint on defense.
Redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson, senior forward Mark Donnal and freshman guard Xavier Simpson played their key bench roles, from Robinson’s 3s to Donnal’s relief of a foul-ridden Wagner to Simpson’s defensive posture.
With the cast of characters coming together, Michigan clicked on both offense and defense for all 40 minutes. The Wolverines shot a blistering 63 percent from the field and 51.9 percent from beyond the arc, while the Cornhuskers shot just 41.2 percent and 13.3 percent, respectively.
“It gives us a lot of confidence, giving us some momentum going into our game on Thursday, especially how well we shot the ball but also just how well we played defensively from start to finish,” Irvin said. “I mean, that’s going to be huge for us to be able to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament.”
For a team that has been both breathtakingly good and frustratingly bad at times this year, Michigan showed that it had come into its own down the stretch of the Big Ten season. Against Nebraska, the Wolverines provided the exclamation mark for their 6-3 second-half record — including blowouts over Michigan State and Indiana and upsets over then-No. 11 Wisconsin and then-No. 14 Purdue — earning their largest margin of victory at 36 points.
In front of a packed crowd eager to celebrate the Senior Day of guard Tai Webster, who scored a game-high 28 points in the first matchup, Michigan sent many fans rushing toward the exits halfway through the second half.
Despite the large lead the Wolverines had, Michigan coach John Beilein said he didn’t feel comfortable.
“I’m nervous through all these games all the way through until it’s over,” Beilein said. “… That’s the way it is.”
Given the times the Wolverines have played down to the level of their opposition or failed to close out games in crunch time, his hesitance made sense. But on this night, he had no reason to worry.
Michigan dominated Nebraska from start to finish, and even though the outcome may not have impacted their Big Ten Tournament seed, the Wolverines will still go into Thursday afternoon rolling because of it.
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