With 39 seconds left in the first half, Mark Donnal cleanly blocked Rasheed Sulaimon and left him lying under the basket on his back. But then Maryland grabbed the offensive rebound, so Donnal jumped up to do it again.
This time, he reached his arm over forward Robert Carter’s shoulder, blocking him from behind. On the following possession, with time about to expire, Donnal tipped in a missed 3-pointer. His teammates mobbed him on the way to the locker room, happy to escape the first half against the third-ranked Terrapins with an eight-point lead.
Fast-forward to the end of the second half, and Donnal was at the center of attention again. After grabbing an offensive board, he drew a foul on a put-back attempt. With just a two-point lead, his two free throws would mean everything to his team’s fate.
After he sank the first one, the crowd let out a collective sigh of relief. At the end of a game the Wolverines mostly dominated, including a 13-point lead in the opening minutes of the second half, Michigan would beat a top-five team for the first time since 2014.
After the buzzer sounded and the team was done celebrating at center court, Donnal went over to the sidelines to give out high-fives — this time connecting not with a ball headed towards the net, but with fans standing on the court and with 17-year event team member Jim Dick. Donnal was grateful to escape with a win.
Who was Donnal, anyway? A skinny, 6-foot-9 big man who lost his starting job not just once, but two years in a row?
Prior to his breakout game against Illinois on Dec. 30, he was averaging 3.9 points and 2.1 boards per game and was known for looking timid on the court. In his third game starting for the Wolverines since then, he has looked like the leader he should be as one of Michigan’s oldest, healthy players. Maybe he’s no longer the kid we thought he was.
And who’s Duncan Robinson? Is this the same kid we met when he transferred from Division III Williams College and sat on the bench last season? Time and time again Tuesday, the redshirt sophomore delivered.
Five times from beyond the arc, if we’re being specific.
Robinson started to hit his stride with 4:26 left in the first half, hitting his second trey in three possessions. He sank another one for good measure two minutes later, scoring back-to-back with junior forward Zak Irvin.
He came out in the second half on the same stride, scoring Michigan’s first points of the half in the form of — you guessed it — a 3-pointer. It was his longest of the game, about a foot away from the navy block ‘M’ at center court.
Later, Robinson made up for a missed wide-open corner triple on the next possession by running beneath the net and laying the ball in on a reverse layup. It gave Michigan a much-needed boost and awakened the crowd, giving the Wolverines a 61-57 lead.
And how about Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.?
Well, they’re faces Michigan fans know well, but they’ve never seen them like this, in more of a leadership role than ever before.
With leading scorer and captain Caris LeVert sidelined due to a lower leg injury, Irvin and Walton had to play those roles Tuesday if they wanted a chance. “Best friends” off the court, the duo showed that they have just as much chemistry on the court.
Walton dished the ball to Irvin for Michigan’s first points of the game, and the trend continued, with the two on the floor together for nearly all of the Wolverines’ big runs.
Irvin led the Wolverines with 22 points, and though Walton didn’t make quite as big of a dent on the box score, the guard came up big with 10 rebounds. In fact, Irvin thinks his buddy Walton is the best rebounding point guard he’s ever played with.
On top of grabbing boards at 6-foot-1, Walton was tasked with the unenviable job of guarding Melo Trimble, Maryland’s leading scorer. He held Trimble to just two points in a matchup that he said he made personal, and after the game, Michigan coach John Beilein had him lead the Wolverines in singing “The Victors.”
It’s hard not to imagine what the Wolverines would have looked like Tuesday night with LeVert. It’s even harder not to make comparisons to last season’s injuries. Beilein even catches himself doing it sometimes.
“I’ve done it, everybody’s done it — ‘Here we go again, same thing as last year,’ ” Beilein said following the game. “You’ve got Spike sitting there and you’ve got Caris sitting there.
“I think the Penn State game really showed that we have some other weapons. They also love playing with Duncan Robinson — they’re looking for him all the time … I think they’re understanding there’s a lot of ways to win, not just if Caris isn’t there, we can’t win. We’ve done it twice now.”
Even without LeVert, the Wolverines proved they could hang out with the big kids — quite literally at times, with two of Maryland’s big men measuring in at 6-foot-11. Michigan finally drew on its strengths, all of them, and used a slew of weapons that were more or less nonexistent just months ago when everyone was still waiting on Robinson and Donnal.
There’s no more waiting now, though. These kids have made it.