When Zavier Simpson kicked the ball out to Duncan Robinson in the closing minutes of the first half, there was no question what was going to happen next.
Even with a defender right in his face, 23 feet away from the basket, the fifth-year senior guard lifted, fired and drained a 3-pointer. It was his fourth triple of afternoon and the final piece of a nearly perfect, 4-for-5 effort from beyond the arc in the first half.
And in a rare display of emotion, he let the 15,000-plus fans in attendance at the Kohl Center know it with a confident, fist-pump filled jog down the floor.
“It felt good just to see some go in,” Robinson said.
This year, Robinson has probably expected to see a few more go in than has been the case.
In his final season at Michigan, the forward has lost his starting job and shot a career-worst 35 percent from the floor. And even with all his experience, the fifth-year senior hasn’t played with the confidence one might anticipate. After the Wolverines’ victory over Rutgers last month, John Beilein said he thought Robinson was tentative and “asking for permission” too often.
But in Michigan’s 83-72 victory over Wisconsin, Robinson refused to ask for anything — even when recent history suggested he could have — scoring 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting in 37 minutes.
“Duncan’s a great shooter, and we know that,” said junior forward Moritz Wagner, “so I’m very happy his shots were going down.”
Robinson’s struggles had hit possibly their lowest point prior to Sunday’s contest, having made just two of his last 13 triple attempts the past three games. Yet, with the injury to freshman forward Isaiah Livers, Robinson was thrust back on the starting lineup Sunday, where the Wolverines needed him to perform.
And channeling a strong performance in practice from earlier this week, he did just that.
“The other day, there was the goal of making 48 3s in four minutes. He made 50 out of 55 shots on the run moving,” Beilein said. “I know he can really shoot the ball, and I encourage him to shoot the ball. He did today.”
Like Robinson, Michigan has had its fair share of recent offensive struggles. The Wolverines shot just 5-for-20 in the second half of Tuesday’s loss at Northwestern — part of a three-game stretch where they averaged just 62 points-per-game.
But it wasn’t that type of afternoon Sunday. Two minutes and change in, Robinson collected himself and knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Wolverines up, 7-0. Minutes later, that advantage would grow to 15-2 when a pick-and-roll set up an open look for Wagner, who splashed his first of three triples on the day.
That type of ball movement was the clear difference from the Northwestern loss, when the Wolverines often resorted to 1-on-1 play when they couldn’t immediately solve the Wildcats’ 2-3 zone defense.
Instead, Michigan assisted on all eight of its made 3-pointers in the first half Sunday, as sound passing even created shots for players who seldom get them. Midway through the first half, fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons hit his first triple since Nov. 29 after catching a kick-out pass from Wagner for an open look.
Michigan went 17-for-26 from the field to score 44 points in the opening frame — its most in the first half since Jan. 2 at Iowa (48).
“We know that it (would) correct itself, and we got really good shooters on the team, and we’ve got really good passers,” Beilein said.
That shooting touch evaded the Wolverines at some points in final 20 minutes, allowing the Badgers to cut deficit to single digits. But the ball movement didn’t.
With Wisconsin threatening, senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman threaded the needle to diving Wagner for a dunk, giving Michigan a 13-point lead with less than eight minutes to play.
The Badgers would make addition comeback efforts from there, but near perfect free-throw shooting down the stretch gave Michigan the win it needed to have.
“It really feels good just to have our guys just go out there and play,” Beilein said.
And behind on the best passing performances in some time, that’s exactly what Robinson and the Wolverines did Sunday — no question about it.