MINNEAPOLIS — One of Williams Arena’s many charms are the steel girders that obstruct views in the farthest reaches of the gym’s lower bowl, a relic of the arena’s 88-year-old design.
For what they witnessed in each stage of Michigan’s surprisingly competitive 82-74 win on Wednesday, many of those who dared enter The Barn to watch the Golden Gophers, now 0-12 in Big Ten play, had cause at numerous points throughout the night to crawl into the corners and hide behind the stanchions.
The Wolverines began and finished with the same ineptitude they displayed in recent blowout losses to Indiana and Michigan State, as junior forward Zak Irvin finished a possession devoid of motion with a 14-foot airball and Michigan picked up an uncharacteristic five fouls in the game’s first six minutes.
Michigan also devolved into ugliness toward the end of the game, when they let Minnesota whittle their 19-point lead to as little as two. But the cushion was enough, thanks an impressive run of defensive chaos on Minnesota’s part earlier in the game that saw Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. put the Wolverines in control, dropping 19 points on a whirlwind of devastating fakes and step-back 3-pointers.
The junior guard, who finished with a career-high 26 points, left Minnesota forward Joey King grasping at thin air on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that gave Michigan (8-4 Big Ten, 18-7 overall) a 42-28 halftime lead, quieting a sparse crowd that, at the time, had little to celebrate besides free heat on a frigid Minnesota night.
But Michigan lost focus late in the game, committing three consecutive turnovers to prompt a timeout from Michigan coach John Beilein that took a more positive tone than one might expect.
“I was more trying to give them confidence, say, ‘We’re going to win this game and we’re going to execute this play, and we’ve got to get a guy in the lane and play ball,’ ” Beilein said.
The Wolverines fulfilled that prophecy, as sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman came away with the type of “East Coast” play Beilein frequently exalts, bumping in the paint to draw a foul and finishing at the rim despite contact.
Abdur-Rahkman wasn’t whistled for the offensive foul, and it wasn’t the only controversial non-call he wound up involved in. Minutes later, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, on the precipice of a win that has evaded him since Big Ten play began in late December, found himself pleading with the referees for a travel call on Abdur-Rahkman, which would have been the fourth disastrous Michigan turnover in a short stretch.
Almost inevitably, Pitino’s pleas and his team’s late-game charge yielded little in way of a final result, as the Wolverines found their stroke from long distance and managed to avoid utter disaster in the form of a loss that might have damaged their NCAA Tournament chances irreparably.
“Those turnovers were really huge,” Beilein said. “That 19-(point) lead isn’t going to stay there. They’re not gonna quit. They’re too quick, and they can score points.
“But all of a sudden, that lead went from 10 or 12 to two or four like this,” Beilein added, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
A team that lives and dies by the 3-pointer, the Wolverines did exactly what they couldn’t last week while the Hoosiers and Spartans embarrassed them on their home floor. Michigan made 14 treys on the night, helped in no small part by repeated defensive lapses that left redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson alone on the wing on consecutive possessions.
“He hasn’t had a lot of looks like that,” Beilein said. “When you’re in transition, we hope we can get that. He’s trying to figure out his pockets of what he’s got to do — a little harder cut, a little harder run. He had some big baskets as well.
“Sometimes — you’ve seen it — when he’s too open, those are the ones he misses. That was a big make.”
Robinson, as he struggled to do in both losses, drained both attempts and finished 4-for-7 from the field. Sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins did his part, too, with a run that came midway through the first half, just before Walton took the game into his own hands.
The bursts from Dawkins and Robinson ended up proving entirely necessary, as the Golden Gophers’ unexpected scoring flurry and Irvin’s failure to find his shooting stroke — he finished with four points on 1-for-8 shooting — turned a problem-solving win into a victory that, given the week it followed, wasn’t nearly as convincing as it needed to be.
“The last two games, you know — that wasn’t us,” Walton said. “Tonight was all about getting back to how we did things.”