Moritz Wagner had struggled all game.
The junior forward found himself in early foul trouble against VCU — Jon Teske again proved himself as a solid frontcourt bench option — and was getting bodied on the defensive end.
But with 1:18 remaining in a tied contest, Wagner’s issues quickly became a thing of the past. He took an aggressive take to the basket that warranted a foul before the ball kissed off the glass. And-one. Three-point lead.
An errant shot from the Rams gave Michigan the ball back. With 13 seconds left, Wagner launched it from beyond the arc. Six-point lead, and a surefire win.
It wasn’t a pretty basketball game — few of them have been so far. But through the ups and downs of Wednesday’s contest against VCU (3-3), the Wolverines (5-1) got the sand out of their shoes in time to topple the Rams, 68-60, to leave Maui with some semblance of a resume-enhancing victory.
Michigan once held an 11-point lead in the second half. But Wagner’s last-minute play, combined with clutch plays such as back-to-back and-one buckets by fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson, ultimately eased the anxiety of the Wolverine faithful.
The first half of the fifth-place game was the cleanest Michigan has played all season. The Wolverines committed just five fouls and turned the ball over only once despite VCU’s press defense. On the other end, Michigan forced seven fouls and five turnovers by the Rams.
Turnovers ended up being the Wolverines’ saving grace for the first 20 minutes. Despite taking a 36-30 lead into the locker room, they were shooting an abysmal 13-for-31 from the field, including 3-for-13 from beyond the arc. They finished the game at a 47.2 percent clip.
Typically, the kind of shooting performance seen in the first half is one you would like to forget about. Inconsistent shooting has been a trend for Michigan to start the year, but glimpses of the team’s potential were evident. Freshman point guard Eli Brooks got the starting nod again, and his early confidence strengthened his case to be the Wolverines’ primary ball handler. He finished the contest with just five points and one assist in 23 minutes, but remained a vocal leader and willing shooter on the court.
The play of Teske and Robinson also offered hope for a reeling offense. Robinson, usually a 3-point specialist, showed a previously unseen aggressiveness with five makes near the basket and a team-high 18 points. Teske’s length was an X-factor once again as well, tallying eight points and solid defensive play in place of Wagner.
A 2-1 record in the Maui Invitational was par for the course for the Wolverines, but they sure would have liked that loss to be against No. 13 Notre Dame rather than LSU. A win against VCU, though, could very well come up again in March.
That’s nothing to get down about.