NEW YORK CITY, NY. — Through the fanfare, the cavernous Madison Square Garden and cascading spotlights, Duncan Robinson knew he didn’t have to say goodbye to it all.
With 1:10 remaining in the game, the fifth-year senior forward curled around Tum Tum Nairn Jr. for an and-one layup to bring Michigan’s lead over Michigan State to 10. As he stared into a section of Wolverines fans cheering him on, he rocked his head and yelled back at them.
And so it was. Robinson’s picture-esque drive was emblematic of a Michigan team, carried by a blistering 49-point second half, that battered and bruised the second-ranked team in the country to the tune of a 75-64 victory. With the win, the Wolverines (13-5 Big Ten, 27-7 overall) are getting back-to-back shots at a Big Ten Tournament Championship.
Alongside Robinson was junior forward Moritz Wagner, waving and flexing in true, Wagner fashion. Despite appearing shaken after an 0-for-7 display in the first half, he too didn’t want to say goodbye facing a three-point halftime deficit.
“They really ran him off the line, we couldn’t get him with any of his stuff,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Sometimes there is residual action, so we had to find different ways.”
Wagner rebounded in the second half with three consecutive field goals — six of his 14 points in the half — to give Michigan the lead it would never relinquish.
The third and final captain, senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman, made sure that lead over the Spartans (16-2, 29-4) stayed.
A 3-pointer by Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid brought the Spartans within five, but Abdur-Rahkman silenced any notion of a comeback. The senior guard launched a trey as the shot clock expired with 2:48 remaining in the game. The basketball rattled around the rim, but stayed in the circle and found twine for three of his 15 points.
“I was actually thinking ‘Why didn’t it swish?’ because it felt really good coming off my hands,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “… Then the crowd goes wild and you get a little emotional, but then you have to go back on defense and get a stop and that’s what we did.”
Added Beilein: “It was an ugly three, but it was pretty to Michigan.”
For redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews, Saturday’s semifinals were an opportunity to say hello on the national stage. After going without a field goal against Nebraska on Friday, Matthews opened the game with two quick threes to rock the arena.
The redshirt sophomore translated that energy to the defensive end with an emphatic block and corralling two, hard-fought rebounds between back-to-back possessions — both of which led to pushing matches after whistles. The jawing in the rivalry matchup was yesterday’s Nebraska game on coffee and a Redbull. But for the Wolverines, it was the perfect amount of proverbial caffeine, even if it didn’t always look like it.
“It’s all fun, getting the energy in the building and the juices flowing,” Matthews said. “We had to show them that — they have fight in them — but we’ve got fight in us as well. We weren’t backing down.”
Added freshman guard Jordan Poole: “That just showed us that we’re tough and we’re here and nothing’s gonna move us.”
Following a technical foul on Spartan forward Nick Ward after the second tie-up, a fire was lit under Michigan State. The Spartans went on a 10-0 in illustrious fashion — the stretch included an alley-oop to Gavin Schilling and a long, shot-clock-beating trey from star wing Miles Bridges. Bridges, thanks to the defensive tenacity of Matthews, hardly sparked his team with 38-percent shooting and fouling out with 1:35 to go in the contest.
The early smack talk was only a temporary reprieve from the overarching malaise of the first half, though. After Matthews’ two 3-pointers, the Wolverines connected on only one of their next 15 tries. The Spartans struggled equally, going 11-for-31 from the field.
“You know, the first half I think that we had some really good looks and we didn't make them … and that's what it is sometimes,” Beilein said. “Just the ball's going to bounce your way or not because both teams played really good defense. Tough to score on Michigan State.”
After the Wolverines found their footing and took the lead on Wagner’s second-half scoring run, the first half became a distant memory. Michigan and Michigan State arm-wrestled between timely 3-pointers and fruitful drives — a stark contrast from the previous, lackluster 20 minutes.
And when the Wolverines cushioned their lead and the call came for a comeback, the Spartans couldn’t do what they needed to do. Michigan State fouled, turned the ball over and couldn’t buy a bucket to even cause a scare.
Robinson, on the other hand, answered his call immediately. He and his teammates were going to get the opportunity to repeat as Big Ten Champions.
They’ll have time to say goodbye later.