It took a shout of desperation from Derrick Walton Jr. for Aubrey Dawkins to realize his predicament. Dribbling in the wrong direction, seemingly unaware that just three seconds remained on the shot clock, Dawkins was forced to rise, simultaneously fade away and perform a 180-degree twist, for an impossible shot.
It was the culmination of yet another defensive triumph for Nebraska, which refused to the bow in the face of Michigan’s 16-3 second-half run. The Cornhuskers put the Wolverines on lockdown, chipping away at a lead that had reached 18 points minutes earlier.
Dawkins’ shot, however, found bottom, and the packed house at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln fell silent. The backbreaking jumper put a damper on Nebraska’s run, which eventually wasn’t enough to change the outcome in Michigan’s 81-68 win Saturday.
The win, which the Wolverines opened on an 18-6 run, was the opposite of Michigan’s last road trip, an 82-71 loss at Iowa last Saturday. That game saw the Wolverines immediately fall victim to a 9-0 burst from the Hawkeyes, but this time, the Wolverines came prepared.
“We just have the mindset that when we got off the bus, we’re down (by) 10,” junior forward Zak Irvin told reporters after the game. “Against Iowa, we had a sluggish start, and that hurt us as the game went on. So going into today’s game, we just wanted to stay together. We had a great start to both halves.”
The first-half start was keyed by Michigan’s specialty: 3-point shooting. The Wolverines stayed true to their reputation of a team that lives and dies from beyond the arc, shooting 52 percent from long distance.
Nebraska, on the other hand, found no such success from the perimeter, especially in the face of the 2-3 zone defense Michigan coach John Beilein employed in the first half. The Cornhuskers shot just 6-for-22 from 3-point range for the game, including a 2-for-8 outing from Andrew White III.
Instead, the bulk of Nebraska’s scoring came in the paint, much of it in transition. The Wolverines’ 12 turnovers prevented them from putting the nail in the coffin until the final minutes.
“We mishandled the ball, (sophomore forward Kameron Chatman) had one go through his hands — you’re gonna have stuff,” Beilein said. “But you’ve got to be under 10 (turnovers). I really think you’ve got to be under 10, or shoot the way (we) did tonight.”
As well as it shot, though, Michigan changed tacks in the second half to take advantage of the room it had created in the interior, as redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson found himself on the receiving end of multiple backdoor passes. Robinson, leading the nation in 3-point shooting percentage, finished consistently at the rim, and finished with more points scored inside the arc than outside for the first time as a Wolverine.
“What he’s realizing now is that people are going to play him a certain way, and his movement without the ball is going to be really important,” Beilein said. “He’s learning — all the video, all the synergy — that people are going to sit on him different ways, and he’s got to do more than stand and wait for people to get him open.”
Robinson’s 21 points on 6-for-12 shooting led the Wolverines, and Walton added 19 points of his own while cementing his status as the team’s leading rebounder, pulling down 12 boards on the afternoon.
As they did in Wednesday’s 74-69 win over Minnesota, the Wolverines found success from the free-throw line down the stretch. Michigan shot 20-for-23 as a team, including an impressive 6-for-8 performance from junior forward Mark Donnal.
Beilein said in his postgame press conference that the Wolverines have been practicing their free-throw shooting “religiously,” in end-of-practice drills wherein players have to contend with loud, piped-in music to simulate an intimidating road environment.
Redshirt freshman guard D.J. Wilson did not appear in the game, as Beilein opted to use only Donnal, freshman Moritz Wagner and sophomore Ricky Doyle at the ‘5’ spot.