After a tough loss in overtime to Minnesota on Sunday, the Michigan men’s basketball team had the opportunity to bounce back at Rutgers — by any metric the worst team in the Big Ten.
Not only was it a chance for the Wolverines to recover from a crushing loss, it was a virtually a must-win game against a team outside the Rating Percentage Index top-100. With Michigan on the NCAA Tournament bubble, a loss would’ve been a big blow.
The Wolverines, despite the high-pressure situation, prevailed, winning 68-64 in Piscataway.
It wasn’t a dominating performance for Michigan (8-7 Big Ten, 18-10 overall) — not even close. While the Wolverines jumped out to multiple double-digit leads, the Scarlet Knights continued to claw back, even taking a four-point lead with 6:46 left in the game.
But a 10-0 Michigan run late in the game proved to be too much for Rutgers (2-14, 13-16), and the Wolverines escaped with a victory.
“There was nothing pretty about this game,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Michigan IMG Sports Radio Network. “This was all gritty. We just got enough done.”
Added redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson on Michigan IMG Sports Radio Network: “(The key) was we stayed locked in for all 40 minutes. We knew they were a gritty team, and they fight to the end, and they did today. We fought to the end too, and when it came down to the end to get crucial stops, we did.”
The Wolverines had to overcome some early ailments, though, as they struggled early with turnovers. They would commit 11 in the game, mostly the result of sloppy passes, coming in nearly two above their season average of 9.4 per game.
Michigan also shot just 40.7 percent from the field, a far cry from their season average of 47.5 percent.
But — perhaps unexpectedly — what kept the Wolverines in the game was their offensive rebounding. Michigan finished the game with 12 offensive rebounds, scoring seven second-chance points.
It was an especially impressive performance given Rutgers’ pedigree on the glass. The Scarlet Knights, coming into the game, were No. 4 in the NCAA in rebounds per game with 41.1. Rutgers was held to just 33 boards in the game.
“In the first half they had one offensive rebound,” Beilein said. “I think in the second half they probably had more during that time, they got all those at the end there. We just had to scrap and continue to scrap and just see what we could do to find a way to win that game.”
Wilson led the way for the Wolverines with 11 rebounds, including six offensive boards. He also finished with 10 points for the fourth double-double of his career.
“Coach emphasized rebounding because I haven’t been on the boards these last few games,” Wilson said. “I think I only had two offensive rebounds in the last five games. So I tried to get there as much as possible today.”
While senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. finished with 13 points, he shot just 3-of-10 from the field, with nine of his shots coming from beyond the arc.
“Everybody did it,” Beilein said. “Don’t forget (junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman), he did a tremendous job as well. (Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner) made a big play down the stretch. We still had some lapses. I think we’re really tired right now, I mean really tired. We had to gut that one out, and we did.”
On the other side of the court, Rutgers put up a valiant effort led by guard Corey Sanders, who had 15 points in the game. The Scarlet Knights also got contributions from guard Mike Williams, who put up 14 points and grabbed 8 rebounds.
“(Rutgers) showed a lot of fortitude by being able to stay in there when nothing could go our way down the stretch,” Beilein said.
While the victory didn’t come in the most impressive fashion, Michigan stays on the right side of the bubble, something that wouldn’t have been certain had the Wolverines lost.
It was crucial for Michigan to get a win at Rutgers, and now with that done, the Wolverines will need to elevate their game as their matchup with No. 15 Purdue looms on Senior Day.
“This is definitely a learning experience for us,” Wilson said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games that we’ve kind of just gave up at the end, but today, we fought hard and we stayed consistent on defense, and it paid off.”