NEW YORK — In the seven seasons leading up to Saturday, Madison Square Garden has become a home away from home for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
The last time the Wolverines walked off the floor, it was with the 2018 Big Ten Tournament title in hand. Prior to that, they scored wins over Marquette and Southern Methodist at the 2K Classic in 2016. Overall, Michigan entered Saturday riding a nine-game winning streak in New York since 2012.
And against No. 25 Rutgers (16-6 overall, 7-4 Big Ten) on Saturday, the Wolverines extended the streak to double-digits with a 69-63 win. There wasn’t a trophy on the line this time, but the magnitude of securing a ranked win in an uber-competitive Big Ten could shake out to be an important inflection point.
After a rocky start that saw the Scarlet Knights score 12 of the game’s first 19 points, Michigan (13-8, 4-6) found its footing on defense. The Wolverines tightened their interior presence, forcing Rutgers into a five-minute scoring drought as it missed 13 of its next 15 shots.
On the opposite end of the floor, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. — who entered the game shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc — made three of his first four 3-point attempts. Freshman wing Franz Wagner and junior guard Eli Brooks also buried threes, propelling Michigan to a 20-5 run.
The most vicious punch, though, came midway through the run. As senior point guard Zavier Simpson peeled off a double screen at the top of the key, he whipped a bounce pass between the Scarlet Knights’ double-team.
He threaded the needle as well as possible, as he’s done so many times before. The ball found the waiting hands of senior center Jon Teske, who used his six-inch height advantage to throw down a thunderous one-handed flush over Rutgers guard Caleb McConnell.
A few minutes later, Johns tipped in a missed free throw at the halftime buzzer, giving Michigan a three-point lead going into the break.
It also gave Johns his 14th and 15th points of the opening half, capping off his best half of college basketball to date. Behind his 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, the Wolverines were able to weather the 10 offensive rebounds and seven second-chance points they allowed.
That rebounding gap, however, kept the halftime lead from ballooning.
“(Rutgers) is an excellent offensive rebounding team,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. … “They’re going to attack the glass because they’re long, they’re athletic and they’re quick. They also have two bigs — particularly (Myles) Johnson — who’s super long, and he goes to the glass to clean up everything.”
When Michigan needed a second-half spark, it once again turned to Johns, who answered the call with a two-handed dunk and a corner three to extend the lead to eight.
Howard has been clear in his desire to breathe confidence into Johns since the summer. With junior forward Isaiah Livers injured once again, his role now becomes even more pivotal.
The trajectory of Johns’ steady season-long climb reached yet another climax on Saturday, when he led all scorers with 20 points.
“This is something that’s happened all season long,” Howard said. “Game by game — this is not just for today. Brandon’s been playing great for us all year. … But points is not what shows up — winning, that’s effort. It’s attention to detail. Being there defensively, being able to guard above the 4, being a rim protector at the basket.”
Johns’ teammates took the reins from there, as Wagner and Teske each scored a pair of baskets as Michigan built a 14-point edge. Simpson found himself at the center of the run, racking up 10 assists in his first game back from suspension.
Missing a game for the first time in his career put Simpson in an odd predicament. As the face of the program, he’s usually the one supporting his teammates, but this week, the roles were reversed.
“It’s pretty much that (the team) had my back (with) positive feedback,” Simpson said. “Stuff that not just teammates, that a brotherhood does. At the same time, that’s what makes us. I feel like we’re a brotherhood.”
The Wolverines forced misses down the stretch, but struggled to keep Rutgers off the offensive glass. The Scarlet Knights outscored Michigan by 19 in second-chance points, but it wasn’t enough to mount a comeback.
It was enough, however, to put the Wolverines in a spot similar to where they found themselves against Illinois and Oregon — two narrow losses from earlier this season. This time, Michigan held on.
And, with it, Howard was finally able to let out a sigh.
“We’re truly growing game by game,” Howard said. “… It was a grind. The Big Ten conference is a grind.”