MINNEAPOLIS — Marcus Carr was calculating.
With Zavier Simpson staring right back at him and over 10,000 Golden Gophers’ fans anxiously awaiting his next move, Carr proved once again to be a steady hand.
The Minnesota point guard floated to the left wing, dragging Michigan’s defense with him, and rifled a pass back across his body to the opposite side of the floor. The recipient was Payton Willis, and despite being scoreless to that point, Willis had time to set his feet, compose himself and drain a 25-footer.
The Wolverines needed a stop on that possession, with their deficit at eight and just over a minute remaining in regulation. Instead, they gave up a wide-open 3-pointer.
In what had been a sleepy Sunday afternoon start was far from lethargic by the end. Thanks, in part, to Carr’s play down the stretch, the Gophers (10-7 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) outlasted Michigan (11-5, 2-3) in a back-and-forth bout, 75-67.
With students still on winter break and a noon tipoff, Williams Arena was eerily quiet for much of the first half. Michigan’s efficient start offensively also tempered enthusiasm.
Simpson might’ve been running the show, but the Wolverines had a well-balanced scoring attack — freshman wing Franz Wagner, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. and senior center Jon Teske were all involved. Late in the first half, Michigan held a 30-19 lead.
“They had six threes early,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “We were there, but we weren’t jumping. They’ve got some size. Wagner’s big and a couple of their guards are bigger than we are, but we were letting them get too comfortable. They push you through ball screens and make you make a decision about what you’re going to do.”
That advantage masked the fact that the Gophers’ Daniel Oturu was going to work down low — consistent with Michigan’s defensive philosophy to withhold the double-team for the opposing big man. Whether it was Teske or backup center Austin Davis, Oturu got whatever he wanted.
Sparked by Oturu and a few big baskets from Carr, Minnesota went on a nine-point tear, cutting what was a once-sizable gap down to a one-point deficit at halftime.
And with the momentum in their team’s favor, the Gophers’ faithful came to life.
Oturu picked up where he left off following his 20-point first half. After trading baskets, he slammed home an alley-oop off a feed by Carr to give Minnesota a 45-41 advantage by the first media timeout of the second half.
“I thought in the first half, we were very active defensively,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “We contested a lot of their shots, able to get the rebound, were active with our hands. In the second half, Carr was very patient off pick and rolls, and was good at reading where the defenders are. You can’t speed him up and has a nice pace to his game.”
The Wolverines had been knocked back on their heels. When Oturu went down hard on a rebound attempt and left the game for three minutes of the second half, Michigan saw a slight opening.
Simpson, as he has done so often over the course of his career, shouldered the burden and clawed his team back into the contest. The senior point guard hit his patented hook shot in the lane, sank a contested 3-pointer from the top of the key and found Wagner behind the arc again.
On the opposite end, Carr, who finished with 21 points, weathered the storm for the home team. Both teams continued to exchange buckets as crunchtime approached. By the 4:30 mark, the game was knotted at 62.
The Gophers’ steadiness and composure won out, though. Minnesota scored 10 straight points to send the Wolverines packing. Oturu finished off his 30-point outing with a layup underneath before Alihan Demir hit a floater. On a turnover by sophomore guard David DeJulius, Carr sank two free throws.
Up five, but with the game still very much up for grabs, Willis’ spot-up shot on the Gophers’ next trip down the floor finally allowed their fans to exhale.
“The ball didn’t go in the basket for us.” Howard said. “We weren’t aggressive enough, and confident enough to get our shot down there on our end. They scored again … it was like score, stop, score, stop. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to capitalize on any of our offensive sets down the stretch.”