Redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson spent what seemed like an eternity suspended in mid-air, but when he came down to earth, he had an alley-oop pass from senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. in his hands. Slamming it home with authority, Wilson gave the Wolverines a 61-60 lead with just under three and a half minutes left on the clock and sent the Crisler Center crowd into a frenzy.
Wilson’s dunk put an exclamation mark at the end of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 20-6 run, in which the Wolverines roared all the way back from a 13-point deficit to take their first lead since the 16-minute mark of the first half.
“As a point guard, I remember a lot of plays, and that one I think was probably the most ecstatic Crisler has gotten for us,” Walton said. “It was such a big play because of the way it happened and the run we (were) on.”
A chaotic end-of-game sequence ensued, but with clutch performances from Walton and fellow senior captain Zak Irvin, Michigan managed to hold on to beat Penn State, 72-69, for its first Big Ten win of the season.
In the remaining three minutes, the Wolverines (1-1 Big Ten, 10-4 overall) kept trying to put the game away, but the Nittany Lions wouldn’t go down with a fight. Irvin hit two tough jump shots and Walton knocked down both of his free throws, but Penn State (1-2, 9-7) answered back with a trey to close the lead to two with 46 seconds left on the clock.
Walton responded with two more free throws, but another Nittany Lion three made it a one-point game with just five seconds left. Irvin finally sealed the deal with two more free throws to give Michigan its winning score of 72-69, as Penn State’s half-court buzzer-beater attempt fell short.
“Our seniors, who were not on their ‘A’ game, were certainly nothing short of spectacular in those last five minutes,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They made the foul shots, they made the big plays, they threw the (alley-oop), they did a lot of great things.”
The Wolverines fell behind early in the contest, struggling to generate an offensive push throughout the first half. They shot just 42.3 percent from the floor and went 1-for-9 from 3-point range. Outside of Wilson and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner, who scored eight and seven points, respectively, in the first half, Michigan looked lost on the offensive side of the ball.
Michigan continuously settled for forced shot after forced shot, leaving coach John Beilein visibly frustrated on the sideline. The lack of movement around the perimeter and the lack of penetration by the ball handlers cost the Wolverines multiple opportunities to develop any sort of rhythm.
Those struggles were only amplified at the other end of the court, as Penn State had its way in the paint. The Nittany Lions — particularly forward Lamar Stevens, who had 13 points in the first half alone — sliced through Michigan’s defense at will. The Wolverines missed several defensive assignments, giving Penn State a number of clear looks at the basket.
“They drove us where they wanted to in the first half, and we let them,” Beilein said. “We were not physical defensively at all in the first half. Our starting five is not a physical team defensively. We must become that. … That’s the only way you’re gonna survive at this level.”
The Nittany Lions took a 36-29 lead into the locker room at the half, but it could have been much worse for Michigan had it not been for Penn State’s seven turnovers — off of which the Wolverines scored eight points.
Michigan made multiple attempts to put itself back into the game in the second half, with Wagner acting as the leader of the comeback effort. In rapid succession, the sophomore made a tough layup, forced an over-and-back violation, and knocked down a 3-pointer to shrink Penn State’s lead to just two with 17:42 left in the frame.
But the Nittany Lions answered right back, as forward Mike Watson imposed his will in the paint while catalyzing the offense on the perimeter. His teammates reaped the benefits, sinking three straight 3-pointers to open up a 14-point lead.
When it looked as though hope might be lost, with some Michigan fans beginning to head toward the exits, redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson emerged with five straight points, including one of his trademark 3-pointers, to reduce the lead to eight.
“Duncan got a quick five, and it was down to eight,” Irvin said. “… It changed the whole game. All the momentum swung our way and at that point, we really just took off with the game.”
That 20-6 run, from the 11:22 minute mark to the 3:28 minute mark — which Robinson ignited and Wilson emphatically ended — made all the difference in a game the Wolverines could easily have lost. Instead, they found a way to win, and to top it all off, they gave Beilein the 200th victory of his Michigan career.
“We just thanked him and he thanked us,” Walton said. “We’ve won a lot of games together, and we’re just proud of him, happy for him. He’s a great coach, future Hall of Famer in my opinion, and he deserves every bit of it. He’s worked really hard to get where he is.”