Entering Thursday night, it was no secret that the Michigan men’s basketball team had a shot at the upset.
The Wolverines were rolling, fresh off a blowout win against Michigan State and their first victory at Assembly Hall since 2009. The momentum, coupled with the fact that Michigan led No. 11 Wisconsin in Madison last month until the final five minutes, pointed toward the possibility of the Wolverines’ first win against a ranked opponent this season.
And when it was announced that Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig would be sidelined for the matchup with a left leg strain, that chance seemed even more likely.
After all, it marked the first time in Koenig’s career that he would miss a game for the Badgers due to injury, and it was his performance that brought Michigan’s upset attempt at the Kohl Center to a screeching halt — scoring 10 consecutive points late to singlehandedly give Wisconsin a lead that it wouldn’t relinquish and send the Wolverines back to Ann Arbor wondering what could have been.
But this time, there was no wondering, as Michigan closed out a resume-bolstering 64-58 victory at Crisler Center to beat the Badgers for the first time since 2014.
“This team deserves to have a run like this,” said sophomore forward Moritz Wagner. “We’re such a good group — everybody loves each other, everybody plays for each other. We practice so hard, and we’ve been going through a stretch where that didn’t always pay off. And now it pays off, so it just means so much to us that we’re able to have a run right now and win games against really good teams.”
Even in its early stages, the game shaped up to be a battle of the big men.
Michigan (7-6 Big Ten, 17-9 overall) opened up the first half on an 8-2 run, but the Badgers (10-3 Big Ten, 21-5 overall) managed to cut the deficit quickly and started feeding the ball to forward Ethan Happ.
Wagner had the responsibility of stopping Wisconsin’s redshirt freshman, but Happ played the first half like a man incapable of being stopped.
With 8:29 left in the frame, Wagner was called for his first foul of the game and was replaced by freshman forward Jon Teske. Michigan coach John Beilein was likely being conservative with Wagner after his foul trouble doomed the Wolverines down the stretch in Madison. Up to that point, Wagner had weathered the impending storm, holding Happ to just six points.
But Teske’s inexperience showed, and Happ took full advantage — scoring six straight points while Teske could do nothing but commit two fouls that ultimately brought Wagner back in.
By that time, though, Happ had found his groove — taking whatever he wanted down low to finish the half with 18 points on 8-for-9 shooting, four assists and three rebounds. It was certainly a precarious situation for the Wolverines, as they had held Happ to just 11 total points in their last meeting.
Despite struggling to contain Wisconsin’s marquee big man, Wagner still did his part on the other end to keep Michigan afloat — scoring a team-high 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting. While Happ imposed his will in the post, Wagner operated beyond the arc, draining 2-of-4 from deep.
Still, Happ’s dominant half put the Badgers on top, 31-30, at the break.
The second half, though, was a different story.
While Wisconsin looked poised to break the game open with a 7-0 run to open the frame, the Wolverines managed to stick around after notching a 6-0 run of their own.
“I don’t know if they don’t go up eight like that, maybe we don’t win the game,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Maybe it’s nip and tuck and we let it get away at the end. I think our guys had that ‘back to the wall’ again, knowing that we were in trouble.
“(Derrick Walton Jr.) in the huddle shouted, ‘We’ve got to get stops! We’ve got to get stops!’ That’s not typical Derrick Walton. … I felt a sense of urgency from this team once we got down by eight.”
Then, roughly five minutes after willing his team forward in the huddle, Walton took the ball to the hole for an acrobatic layup and drew Happ’s third foul. Though it sent him to the bench for just over a minute, Happ was visibly more tentative on the defensive end for the remainder of the game.
That — coupled with Michigan’s decision to start double teaming him on the opposite end — limited Happ’s impact, as he fouled out with 36.9 seconds left to finish with just four second-half points and end the game with 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting.
“When to double is always the question,” Wagner said. “He’s a really good passer, I kind of feel like he likes to pass. But that’s the thing, you’ve gotta mix it up. You can’t give him the same look every possession. I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
Added Beilein: “We looked at our numbers last time that we played them. Northwestern just double-teamed him the whole game and it was a point per possession, and when we didn’t double team him last time it was 0.6. So we said we can have it in our package, but we’re not going to do it unless we need it.”
Zak Irvin, on the other hand, finally woke up in the second half to take over himself. The senior wing went 2-for-5 in the first half and was averaging 3.25 points per game in his last four contests. But if there was a game for him to bounce back, he picked the right one — finishing with 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting, while also pitching in five rebounds and three assists. Alongside Irvin, Wagner replicated his first-half scoring display, finishing with a team-high 21 points.
Entering Thursday night, it was no secret that the Wolverines had a shot at the upset.
But that doesn’t make stamping a win against the Badgers onto their NCAA Tournament resume any less sweet.