If the Michigan men’s basketball team’s upset of then-No. 3 Maryland was a pretty performance — just the right mix of 3-point bombs, high-energy defense and timely shooting — Wednesday’s win over Minnesota at Crisler Center was downright ugly.
The Wolverines couldn’t rely on the 3, shooting just 29 percent from beyond the arc — 13 percent below their season average. Even their most prolific sharpshooter, redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson, clanked multiple wide-open attempts off the back of the rim in the first half and shot an abysmal 3-for-12 from the floor in the game.
And they certainly weren’t playing high-energy defense either, allowing the Golden Gophers — who remain winless in their seven Big Ten games — to close the first half on a 9-0 run and stay in the game well into the second half.
But luckily for Michigan, even when the rest of its offense seemed to be asleep — Minnesota outshot the Wolverines 42 percent to 37 — its two on-court junior leaders, forward Zak Irvin and guard Derrick Walton Jr., came ready to play, and that was enough to allow Michigan to narrowly escape with a 74-69 victory.
On a night when his teammates shot a combined 15-for-46 and tied the rebounding battle with one of the worst rebounding teams in the conference, Irvin came out strong with 19 points and a team-high 11 boards. Irvin didn’t make a basket in the last 17 minutes of the game, but he helped carry the Wolverines with 15 points in the first half.
“Guys need to step up,” Irvin said. “I had to go through that a bit last year with Derrick and (senior guard Caris LeVert) being out, so I’m used to it now. It’s a team game — all of us are just trying to do what we can.”
In the second half, it was Walton’s turn to take over. Like most of his teammates, Walton didn’t have a great shooting performance — he made just five of his 13 shots — but in the second half, he made 10 of 11 free throws and a big 3-pointer to help ice the game for the Wolverines.
“Derrick’s been playing with great poise, especially once we got into the Big Ten (season),” Irvin said. “He’s been able to be there when things are going tough for us. He was able to make some big shots tonight when we couldn’t really get the ball in the basket.”
Walton finished with a team-high 22 points, thanks largely to his success from the charity stripe, though his shooting numbers on paper left a bit to be desired. But Michigan coach John Beilein was more than satisfied with the way his point guard played, especially with offensive focal point LeVert still injured.
“We’re calling more plays for (Walton), and we’re wanting him to be aggressive,” Beilein said. “His 3 was a big, big shot for us. … He’s finishing at the rim — his left-handed finish was huge as well. He’s growing every single day.”
And crucially, Walton’s performance at the line proved to be the difference for a team that hadn’t gotten into many free-throw battles late in games — Beilein said the only true example of that this year was at North Carolina State in December, where LeVert sank eight of eight foul shots down the stretch to seal a victory.
The victory wasn’t especially pleasing to Beilein, the fans or the players, but in the end the Wolverines were still proud to say they had successfully closed out the game.
“It wasn’t a pretty win,” Irvin said, “but it was gritty. We had to do the things we don’t normally have to do — we had to fight.”