NEW YORK CITY, NY— With Isaiah Roby bustling to close out, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman stared down the hoop from the right corner, flicked his wrist and hit nothing but net. The usually stoic and hyper-cool senior guard turned around and let Roby know it, jawing and smiling as he swaggered down the floor.
It was a scene that contrasted the Michigan basketball team’s nail-biting win over Iowa on Thursday, when the Wolverines never truly found that edge and hit just three 3-pointers.
But against Nebraska (13-6 Big Ten, 22-10 Overall), No. 15 Michigan (15-5 Big Ten, 26-7 overall) rediscovered its moxie in a big way, cruising, 77-58, to advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
“When Muhammad’s showing emotion, we get excited, and we show it,” said sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. “Now we’re engaged, now we’re locked in mentally. I just think our energy is contagious when we’re knocking down shots.”
The Wolverines went 11-for-22 from beyond the arc, including five makes from Abdur-Rakhman (21 points) and four from redshirt senior forward Duncan Robinson (16).
“I feel like Duncan Robinson, he has that shot down to a tee,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “Every time he shoots it, I swear it’s going in — even with Muhammad, too. I feel like that one day gives us more confidence going into the next day, and I think we found our shots today.”
Back in January, Nebraska “simply outplayed” Michigan in the words of coach John Beilein. The Cornhuskers held the Wolverines to just 52 points — their fewest to date — and scored 72 for an easy victory.
The roles reversed Friday. Michigan’s offense found a plethora of open looks. Nebraska shot a woeful 30 percent from the field.
“(With) the defense, you look at the numbers right now, our defense was not good; it was great,” Beilein said.
Part of that was fueled by the Wolverines’ commitment to sticking with their matchups when screens came. It was a mostly unsuccessful strategy in Lincoln, but that wasn’t the case the second time around.
“We didn’t switch a lot of stuff,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “We kept our matchups. We wanted Zavier Simpson to stay on (Glynn) Watson. We wanted Charles to stay on (James) Palmer, and that worked perfectly.”
Still, Nebraska quietly crept back, closing its deficit to eight points with 13 minutes to play. The Cornhusker contingent sensed a comeback brewing.
But that closeness vanished quickly. At the 11:30 mark, a smothered Zavier Simpson craftily converted a layup — another example of the guard’s improvement around to the rim — to cap a 7-0 Michigan stretch.
The Wolverines’ lead would balloon to as much as 19, and by the six-minute mark, the game’s finish was purely academic.
It got that way partially because of junior forward Moritz Wager. After scoring just two points in the teams’ first matchup, Wagner quickly made an impact, scoring the Wolverines’ first eight points. On his second shot of the day, he calmly drilled a straightway triple for three of his 20 points. He’d also finish with 13 rebounds — good for his seventh double-double of the year.
Soon after triples from Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, Teske emphatically blocked Palmer, leading to a Robinson fast-break layup. It was the key moment of a 13-1 run that gave Michigan an eight-point lead midway through the first half.
Teske’s block was emblematic of a tenacious Wolverine defense that consistently stalled Nebraska’s offense. From the 18 to 8-minute mark, the Cornhuskers went just 1-for-18 from the floor — exasperated by a pair of blocks from both Teske and Wagner.
Nebraska shot just 23 percent in the opening frame — a stark contrast from its 26-for-47 effort in January.
But while shooting struggles didn’t carry over from Michigan’s game on Thursday, foul trouble did. Starters Charles Matthews and Isaiah Livers picked up two fouls, sending them to the bench for long stretches in the first half.
Usually, Beilein’s go-to reserve is freshman guard Jordan Poole. But in a rare appearance, sophomore Ibi Watson filled in for Matthews — and successfully so. With 5:35 left in the half, he extended the Wolverines’ possession with an offensive board, eventually leading to an Abdur-Rakhman triple.
Three minutes later, Watson would tap out another second chance for a 3-pointer — this time from Robinson — to give Michigan a 34-20 lead late in the first half.
“That’s our guy, he’s been waiting for his name to get called, and it got called today,” Livers said of Watson. “I kept telling him to be ready, and he went in there and had two offensive rebounds and some key free throws. He played really good, and I’m proud of him.”
Nebraska would flirt with a comeback early in the second half, but the deficit and the Wolverines were too much.
The Wolverines will now face No. 2 Michigan State in the semifinal game. In their only meeting this season, Michigan bested the Spartans, 82-72, in East Lansing.
“We just got to play our game,” Livers said. “If we play like we did today, the game is ours.”