PISCATAWAY — Geo Baker stood dead center, well beyond the arc, and fired for three.
The shot landed to cap off an 8-0 run, and with just over three minutes left in the first half, Michigan’s lead was down to single digits for the first time since the under-16 timeout.
It was the first of several times Rutgers tried to make things interesting. But this time, the magic wasn’t there. A minute later, sophomore guard Jordan Poole returned the favor with a three of his own, then after a block on the defensive end, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis drove into the paint for a layup. And despite a few similar moments in the second half — where the Scarlet Knights got the deficit under 10 four separate times — the No. 5 Michigan men’s basketball team (21-2 overall, 10-2 Big Ten) ultimately scored too much, too quick, leaving Rutgers (11-11 overall, 4-8 Big Ten) unable to keep up in the Wolverines’ 77-65 win.
“They got off to a great start,” said Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell. “And we kind of went digging, digging, digging and I told them they could’ve made it interesting. … But we needed some timely stops defensively or some timely offensive possessions and you just can’t play that way. Every time we made a mistake, they made us pay on the offensive end.”
Michigan started the game 5-for-5 from the field and, for much of the first half, got whatever it wanted on offense. Seven minutes into the period, redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews scored seven consecutive points for the Wolverines on two free throws, a 3-pointer and a turnaround jumper — part of a 19-4 run that put Michigan up 17 not even 10 minutes into the half.
The lead was so large that despite no fouls from anyone on the team, freshman forward Brandon Johns subbed in with 13:37 remaining. Unlike most of his previous appearances — like one last Friday at Iowa when other options at the ‘5’ were in foul trouble — this one was not out of desperation, but luxury.
Other than the 8-0 run at the end, the rest of the period proceeded similarly, with Brazdeikis especially taking advantage of every Scarlet Knights defensive breakdown. He finished with 23 points — his seventh 20-point game of the season — while leading the team with five 3-pointers.
“They definitely didn’t prepare for my 3-point shot, I feel like,” Brazdeikis said. “They didn’t close out as hard and left me open so it was an advantage for us.”
But in the second half, the brand of junkball that the Scarlet Knights have ridden to four conference wins came out. The field goals that had dropped so effortlessly for the Wolverines early on couldn’t find the net. But whenever Rutgers started to inch within the possibility of an upset, Michigan answered back. After a thunderous dunk by Shaquille Doorson cut the lead to seven five minutes in, the Scarlet Knights turned the ball over and fouled junior guard Zavier Simpson, leading to two free throws and then back-to-back threes from Poole — who shook off a shooting slump by scoring 15 points and going 3-for-6 from deep — and Brazdeikis.
Rutgers fought as hard as it could, but in a second-half defensive battle, it was unable to cut into the Wolverines’ lead enough to make anything happen.
It wasn’t a pretty win by any means, but in the end it got the job done. And on the road in the Big Ten — with a first half that provided hope the Wolverines would find their way out of their recent offensive struggles — sometimes that’s all you can ask for.