Before tip-off Saturday afternoon, before senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. carried his team down the stretch and before Michigan earned the win it so desperately needed, the Wolverines had a team meeting in Walton’s hotel room.
No coaches were there. Michigan coach John Beilein only knew about it because he tried to call a meeting himself after Friday’s practice, sensing that the Wolverines didn’t have the necessary “bounce” they would need against Nebraska.
Walton, in his own right, wanted his team to know that the time to play up to their maximum potential was running out.
“There’s only so many games left,” Walton said. “We’re hitting the (middle) stretch, and the back stretch is coming soon. It’s time to make some noise.”
Behind Walton’s efforts on the court, the Wolverines may have taken the first step toward doing so, as they defeated the Cornhuskers in a 91-85 barnburner.
Walton started the game quietly, playing just 10 minutes of the first half due to foul trouble. But when Michigan (2-3 Big Ten, 12-6 overall) needed its captain most, Walton obliged.
With just over five minutes remaining in the game, Nebraska was threatening. The Cornhuskers (3-2, 9-8) were getting anything they wanted on the offensive end, and it was starting to look more and more like déjà vu.
But with the Wolverines’ lead down to one, Walton received an outlet pass from Wagner and pushed it down the floor before nailing a transition 3-pointer. Two possessions later, with the lead down to one once more, he did it again.
Then Walton turned around on the defensive end, picked Glynn Watson Jr.’s pocket, and took it to the basket before drawing a foul and knocking down two free throws to give Michigan a seven-point lead that it wouldn’t relinquish in the final 4:05. He finished with 20 points — 16 of which came in the second half — while shooting a perfect 3-for-3 from behind the arc and an impressive 5-for-6 from the floor.
The Wolverines had some help before the game even started. On Wednesday, it was announced that Nebraska forward Ed Morrow suffered a right foot injury and would be ruled out indefinitely.
Morrow’s absence meant that Nebraska would be without its leading rebounder and third-leading scorer. And with forward Isaiah Roby in his place, the Wolverines were clearly looking to attack the basket — giving the ball to Moritz Wagner early and often.
The sophomore forward scored from everywhere on the floor, shooting 2-for-4 from deep and going a perfect 7-for-7 from the charity stripe to end the half with a team-high 14 points.
Michigan’s offense as a whole thrived as usual for the majority of the half. The Wolverines shot 50 percent from the floor and their willingness to look down low seemed to be the perfect recipe for success.
But with 6:36 remaining in the half, the Cornhuskers switched to a 1-3-1 zone. Michigan scored on six straight possessions, but the new defensive scheme cooled the Wolverines down. After Nebraska implemented the zone, Michigan missed three 3-pointers and redshirt junior forward Duncan Robinson turned the ball over. Its struggles on the offensive end allowed the Cornhuskers to trim their deficit to as little as one.
The Wolverines’ defensive effort didn’t help them either. Though their 16 points off eight turnovers were an encouraging sign, they still allowed Nebraska to shoot 61.5 percent from the floor and get to the rim with ease. By the end of the contest, they had still allowed the Cornhuskers to shoot 56.2 percent overall.
And while Michigan had contained senior guard Tai Webster to begin the frame, he eventually showcased why he is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring. Webster finished the first half with a game-high 17 points — just 0.7 shy of his season average — on 7-for-8 shooting. As it turned out, Webster was just getting started, as he ended up with a game-high 28 points.
“You can see what development does,” Beilein said. “Webster, his freshman and sophomore years, he was not a factor on that team. A little bit more of a factor last year. But now, all of a sudden he’s going to get buckets on anybody.”
Despite Webster’s first-half dominance, though, the Wolverines managed to enter halftime leading, 40-36.
Michigan would never relinquish that lead.
The Wolverines rode their trio of Wagner, Walton and senior wing Zak Irvin to overcome their defensive struggles and poor rebounding effort. Wagner scored nine second-half points to finish with a team-high 23, while Irvin complimented his game perfectly, scoring 18 points.
“Here at Michigan, man, if we have to beat someone 99-98, we cool with it,” Walton said. “It’s all about winning. We’ll make the adjustments when we need to and go back to the drawing board and make adjustments, but when we come out of a game with a win, why be so critical?”
Following Walton’s scoring outburst, Michigan managed to keep the Cornhuskers at bay — making six stops in the final three minutes to hold on for the victory.
But before the Wolverines did any of that, they simply met in a hotel room.