At first, the Michigan basketball team wasn’t quite ready.
Coming off of two games — against Air Force and Binghamton — in which the Wolverines saw almost exclusively zone, they were stifled by Penn State’s stingy, man-to-man defense for much of the first half. With length and pressure, the Nittany Lions hounded Michigan into just 37 percent shooting and an uncharacteristic eight turnovers in the first half, and went into halftime trailing the No. 2 team in the nation by just five points.
But the Wolverines (3-0 Big Ten, 14-0 overall) are no stranger to slow starts, and Thursday night was no different. Behind a 43-point second half, they pulled away for a 68-55 win over Penn State (0-3, 7-7) at Crisler Center.
“We haven’t seen man in three weeks,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “ … I’ll use a football analogy, it’s like you play against a wishbone team, you’re playing against a wishbone team, you’re playing against a wishbone team and three weeks later, okay, now we’re going to go to our spread offense again. The timing’s bad. Once we got through that we scored 43 points in the second half, and that was more of who we had to be.”
Exacerbating the Wolverines’ slow start was the absence of do-everything sophomore forward Isaiah Livers due to back spasms. After the game, Beilein stated that Livers woke up “really sore” Thursday and was a game-time decision against the Nittany Lions. Livers will receive an MRI on Friday, and currently his status for Sunday’s game against Indiana is unclear.
“I planned on him playing (against Penn State),” Beilein said. “ … Being a guy who’s had back spasms, he probably won’t be at 100 percent but hopefully he can go, because we just need the minutes there from that position.”
The first half saw just two total 3-pointers and 18 giveaways between both teams. But once the second half started, the Wolverines overwhelmed the Nittany Lions with their own aggressive, opportunistic defense, turning what had been a rock fight into a more up-and-down affair.
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis paced Michigan throughout with 17 and 16 points, respectively, and the duo provided the spark on both sides of the ball. Brazdeikis got going off a Penn State turnover, racing down the court and muscling in an and-one fast break layup. Two possessions later, he tipped an errant pass and started the break, feeding Poole for a runner off the glass.
Poole then jumped a passing lane and deflected the ball to himself, culminating in a trip to the foul line where he hit one of two. Again on the fast break after a steal by junior guard Zavier Simpson, Brazdeikis nailed a soft turnaround from the baseline, putting the Wolverines up 36-24 and forcing Nittany Lion coach Pat Chambers to call timeout.
Michigan forced 10 turnovers in the second half and 18 for the contest, scoring a total of 20 points off giveaways and outscoring Penn State in transition, 10-2.
“That’s how we got away from them. That was the way we were going to score points,” Beilein said. “… That’s the way, some days, you gotta score. We’re playing all this defense … you gotta create offense out of your defense. Get a deflection here, get in the gap here, block the shot here. That’s what we need to do.
“And then we got to run it. I don’t think you’ve seen how good we can be running. I think we’re still learning in that area, but we’re much better than we were when we were running over in Spain (in August) or running early in the year.”
When redshirt junior guard Charles Matthews scored to make it 50-33 with 10 minutes remaining, it appeared that the Wolverines might make the rest of the game a mere formality. But the Nittany Lions had other ideas. Myles Dread banked home a three-pointer to spark an 10-1 run, with the exclamation point a Lamar Stevens and-one going into the under-8 media timeout.
Stevens (17 points) and forward Mike Watkins (19) kept the Nittany Lions afloat with 11 second-half points apiece, and they continued to answer the Wolverines punch-for-punch. Five points by Matthews in less than a minute looked like it might be the final nail in the coffin, but with 2:21 to play, Stevens converted a tough layup under the basket to make the score 60-51, drawing a foul in the process.
But with a chance to cut the lead to eight, Stevens’ free throw missed long. Brazdeikis nailed a corner triple on the next possession, and Poole then hit two shots from the line with one minute to play to put the game to bed.
“We were able to be solid, take care of the ball, being able to make the right plays was something that was huge in separating the score,” Poole said. “Coaches drew up a lot of great plays, we were also able to pressure up their defense … and being able to get the easy steals and try to get transition buckets was something that was beneficial to our lead.”