With barely a minute left in the game, the Michigan men’s basketball team clung tightly to a 63-60 lead.
The Wolverines were in desperate need of a defensive stop after struggling to contain Furman’s quick offensive pace throughout the game. But on that pivotal possession, Michigan turned the tides, rotating quickly and shutting down every open lane and potential shooter. With the shot clock winding down and the pressure of the Wolverines’ defense cracking down on him, Furman guard John Davis III stepped out of bounds on the baseline and turned the ball over.
“We knew, ‘It’s gut-check time,’” said senior wing Zak Irvin. “We want to be able to finish strong, especially going into conference play. That was huge for us.”
After the Paladins’ crucial error, senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. sealed the deal. On the very next possession, he knocked down a 3-pointer to put Michigan up 66-60 — the largest lead of the night for either team — and put the game away.
In their final non-conference game of the season, the Wolverines (10-3) faced a stiffer test from Furman (7-6) than from their other opponents of late. The battle commenced right from the opening tip, and in the first half alone, there were five ties and five lead changes between the two teams. By the end of the game, the number of ties had increased to eight, and the number of lead changes soared to 11.
“That was a great challenge for us, to play a smart team,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They played great transition defense, they milked the clock a little bit and then they attacked us beautifully. So I loved our approach to it, and frankly, we needed something like that.”
The Paladins took a quick 4-0 lead to start the game, catching Michigan on its heels early with their rapid ball movement and movement away from the ball. With his Wolverines struggling to find their feet, sophomore forward Moritz Wagner stopped Furman from opening up an even bigger lead. He rebounded an attempted 3-pointer and put it back up to finally put Michigan on the board. After the Paladins knocked down another bucket, Wagner sunk a 3-pointer to cut the deficit down to one.
Following his lead, the Wolverines tried to summon the 3-point magic that had worked so well for them in recent games, but Furman wouldn’t let them take the lead for very long. With the score tied at 13-13, Walton hit a three, but the Paladins answered right back with their own conversion from beyond the arc.
As was the trend throughout the night, Michigan and Furman went back-and-forth until the final stages of the half. With a narrow two-point advantage, the Wolverines fed the ball back to Wagner in the middle, and he delivered. Muscling his way through the defense, Wagner tallied four straight points to give the Wolverines a 31-25 lead heading into the break.
Furman responded with an offensive flurry in the second half, notching 11 straight points to take a 36-31 lead. Guard Devin Sibley did much of the damage on that run, knocking down a 3-pointer and then another jumper to notch five consecutive points.
Michigan used the fast break to turn that deficit into a one-point lead with back-to-back 3-point plays courtesy of Walton and redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson.
With the game still hanging in the balance with four minutes left, Irvin took matters into his own hands. Finding his sweet spot inside the paint, he hit two straight jumpshots to put Michigan up 63-58.
“Throughout the whole game that shot had kind of been there, but I was hesitant to take it because Moe had been open on the roll throughout the whole game,” Irvin said. “And I knew once crunch time came, I let the first one go. It felt good, and I knew. We ran the same exact play, and it was open again.”
At that point, Michigan’s defense took care of the rest, finding a way to stave off the late upset attempt.
“We had to do that,” Beilein said. “They did something where they would just brush screen and drive it right downhill on us, and that’s a concern. I hope we do this to other teams. When you have four shooters out there, it is really hard to give any help and stay in front of your guy when the guy’s as quick as their guards were.”
With the win, the Wolverines finished their non-conference schedule on a high note and gave Beilein his 750th collegiate coaching victory. But the matchup with the Paladins proved to be a concerning one, and one that Michigan will surely take notice of with its Big Ten opener on the horizon.