INDIANAPOLIS — If you told John Beilein that his team would give up 91 points and still win, he’d call you crazy.
But the Michigan men’s basketball team did just that against Oklahoma State (9-9 Big 12, 24-12 overall) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, winning 92-91, in a matchup of two of the top offenses in the country.
But the offensive explosion that most expected didn’t come to fruition early. Rather, the two teams struggled to put the ball in the bucket.
After nine minutes of basketball, the two teams had combined for just 27 points on just 8-for-23 shooting. At one point, both teams missed eight consecutive shots in a row.
But with the makeup of the two teams, it was only a matter of time before they started rolling, and a dull game quickly became a high-scoring affair.
“We had to outscore them,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I don’t think we were alone. You look (at Oklahoma State’s scores against) Kansas and Iowa State, the scores are all like this. It’s tough to guard them, particularly for us.”
Michigan (10-8 Big Ten, 25-11 overall) struggled early to deal with the Cowboys’ soft full court press, a testament to Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood’s preparation for the game, and the Wolverines went down seven with 10 minutes gone in the game.
The Wolverines, though, came roaring back to life as their offense started to settle into the contest.
“They tried to soften us up by pressing us and taking us out of our stuff,” said sophomore forward Moritz Wagner. “Regardless of how much you prepare for that, it takes a while to do that because we’re not used to that as much.
Added senior wing Zak Irvin: “We just needed to get the ball up quicker. We didn’t know if they’d try to trap us because they like to do that. They were trying to slow down our offense and make our sets slower than what they needed to be. But once we calmed down and relaxed, we were good to go.”
Junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman — who had just a combined nine points in Michigan’s last two games — caught fire while the rest of his team struggled, finishing with 11 points on 4-for-8 shooting. He finished the game with 16 points.
But Oklahoma State was up to the task, pushing the pace with All-First Team Big 12 guard Jawun Evans to keep level with the Wolverines.
While Evans had just eight points on 3-for-12 shooting in the first half, Michigan struggled to deal with his speed, which led to easy buckets for the Cowboys and fouls for the Wolverines — Wagner and redshirt junior forward Mark Donnal each picked up two fouls in the first half. Evans finished with 23 points, just above his season average of 19 points per game.
Oklahoma State continued to push the ball in the second half, going on a quick 8-0 run in just 1:39 to take a six-point lead early in the stanza.
But once again, Michigan kept pace, on the back of a ridiculous 73.3 percent (11-for-15) shooting performance from the beyond the arc in the second half.
“When one of us gets going, it’s contagious for the rest of the team,” Irvin said. “And when all of us get it going, it’s nice to watch.”
The two teams continued to trade buckets well into the half until junior forward Duncan Robinson and senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. hit back to back treys, allowing the Wolverines to take a six-point lead of their own Walton, who had just seven points in the first half, caught fire in the second stanza, scoring a game-high 26 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
“During one timeout, I coached him pretty hard,” Beilein said. “I did not like what I was seeing in the first half. The pressure that he was seeing, he was deferring.”
Added assistant Billy Donlon: “Derrick’s urgency, enthusiasm and passion right now in huddles and during the game, it’s relentless. He never gets low during a tough time.”
From there, Michigan held on to take the victory and move on to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where the Wolverines will play No. 10 Louisville.