NEW YORK — Shep Garner sank a three, and then Davis Zemgulis hit another one. All of a sudden, Penn State was within five points of the Michigan men’s basketball team with less than five minutes to go. After the Wolverines (7-2 Big Ten, 17-5 overall) controlled most of the game, the Nittany Lions (2-7, 11-11) gave them a late scare.
But then redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson responded with a layup, and sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman followed with another one to give the Wolverines a 68-59 lead. The short scare was over, and the Michigan faithful knew it, starting a “Let’s Go Blue” chant that rang through the rafters of Madison Square Garden.
Michigan safely controlled the Nittany Lions from then on out, resulting in a 79-72 victory in the “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
The late contest wasn’t the first time the Wolverines felt pressured. Michigan started the game with a 7-0 run and didn’t allow the Nittany Lions to get on the board until almost four minutes into the game. Penn State soon retaliated, though, going on an 8-0 run that lasted 3:44 and tied the game up at 13.
Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. awakened the Wolverines after he chased down Payton Banks, stole the ball and took it to the opposite end to convert on a fast-break layup. It gave Michigan a 25-17 lead, all just seconds after a possession that included a made 3-pointer from Aubrey Dawkins.
“I’ve said it time and time again, that this group of guys is really resilient,” Walton said. “Game by game, we’ve given runs and withstood runs, we’ve never gotten too hot or too low within either one, so tonight was another great example where we couldn’t get a shot in a couple possessions in a row … then we were able to connect on some.
“Just with the character of this group, we always know that down the road that we have the guys who make the big plays.”
The Wolverines played well enough in the first half to make up for their miscues.
One of their worst showings during the Nittany Lions’ 8-0 run came on three Penn State free throws after redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson fouled Isaiah Washington on a triple. Just before that, Robinson missed a 3-pointer of his own on his way to 2-for-6 shooting on the day. Though Robinson wasn’t his typical, sharp-shooting self (granted, he sat most of the first half after committing two fouls early on), junior forward Zak Irvin picked up the slack. Irvin made the first 3-pointer of the game and closed out the first half with a buzzer-beating triple on his way to 7-for-12 shooting and 20 points.
When Michigan faced the Nittany Lions on Jan. 2, Walton was effectively shut down on offense, scoring just six points. He avoided a repeat performance at the Garden, however, scoring 13 points. During the teams’ first meeting, Walton was able to control Garner and hold him to six points on 2-for-10 shooting, but this time, Garner led the Nittany Lions with 22 points. The two guards were responsible for most of the game’s late excitement.
Penn State came out of halftime firing, making three shots in a row, but Michigan was always there to retaliate. In the second half alone, Irvin and Abdur-Rakhman combined for 17 points. The Nittany Lions also committed 13 fouls, almost twice as many as did Michigan, and the Wolverines took advantage of it, making 23-of-31 shots at the line.
“I just think we all knew that shots weren’t falling,” Irvin said. “So we had to get in the rhythm at the free throw line for easy buckets.”
The Wolverines won without senior guard Caris LeVert, who has been sidelined for the past eight games with a lower-leg injury. With the win, they remained one game out of first place in the Big Ten.