Irvin, Donnal help Wolverines clobber Penn State

Saturday, January 2, 2016 - 1:19pm

Zak Irvin created space and hit a straight-on trey for his third 3-pointer of the game. The basket marked his first game with more than two 3s since last season, but it also signified a recovery from a Caris LeVert-less starting lineup and Penn State’s opening 7-0 run. 

The junior guard went 3-for-3 over six minutes to help the Wolverines (2-0 Big Ten, 12-3 overall) to a 24-4 run, starting with a 3-pointer from redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson and ending with a layup from freshman forward Moritz Wagner. It left Penn State with half as many points as the Wolverines, and the Nittany Lions didn’t recover. After Michigan’s explosive first half that included 10 3-pointers, Penn State (0-2, 9-6) didn’t stand a chance, getting clobbered in Crisler Center, 79-56.

“I think that’s what makes us so special — it’s not just one person who can get hot,” Irvin said. “We all get hot. I think we had 10 3s in the first half. That’s special. We also have (junior forward Mark Donnal), who’s been great in these back-to-back games with an inside presence.”

Early on Saturday afternoon, though, things didn’t look great for the Wolverines. With LeVert lost to a day-to-day lower leg injury and the Nittany Lions blocking three shots in the first five minutes alone, LeVert’s teammates had to quickly learn how to play without him. Luckily for Michigan, they figured it out after a slow start and made up for his absence. 

After scoring 26 points and grabbing nine boards against Illinois to help Michigan to its first Big Ten win of the season, Donnal started against Penn State but committed a foul just 38 seconds after taking the court. Michigan coach John Beilein yanked him, replacing him with sophomore forward Ricky Doyle.

Donnal didn’t return to the court until 6:44 left in the first half, but he proved to be a game changer, just like he was against the Fighting Illini. He scored 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting — draining his first seven attempts — and added eight boards. While Michigan rained 3s from the outside, Donnal changed the inside game to give the Wolverines more ways to score.

“We have outside shooters, so that kind of opens up the inside,” Donnal said. “I think Duncan and Zak had some good passes to me down low that I executed on, so with good shooters like that, it opens it up.”

Sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman started in LeVert’s absence and hit Michigan’s first 3-pointer of the day, going on to score 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting. In the second half, his floor awareness was on display as he flipped in a contested layup from under the net. 

Abdur-Rahkman was one of four Wolverines to score in double digits, including Robinson, who proved to be a key player for the Wolverines. At the 7:27 mark in the first half, he pump-faked and stepped out to the left to give Michigan its first lead of the game, 12-11. On the Wolverines’ next possession, he chased the ball under the net to prevent it from going out of bounds and dished it to Irvin, who hit a quick-release 3-pointer from the corner.  

Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. didn’t score in double digits or post his best offensive stats of the season, but was a force against guard Shep Garner, who scored 17 points against No. 4 Maryland on Dec. 30. Garner was rendered helpless on Saturday, scoring just six points in his 35 minutes on the court. 

“Derrick did not have a good offensive game,” Beilein said. “Derrick had a great defensive game on Shep Garner, who hit eight 3s against Boston College in their win at Boston College. That’s been a key.”

Even without LeVert, its leading scorer, Michigan proved that it’s a competitive team in the Big Ten. Whether that spark comes from Donnal or Irvin, who scored 16 points a piece on Wednesday, or comes from shooting 59 percent from the field and making 14 3-pointers, the Wolverines have plenty of scoring options. 

With two games coming up against No. 14 Purdue and the fourth-ranked Terrapins, the confidence boost came at just the right time.