PISCATAWAY — Prior to Wednesday’s night-matchup, the Michigan men’s basketball team had never lost to Rutgers — 12-0, to be exact. The Scarlet Knights meanwhile, currently tied for third in the Big Ten, were a perfect 17-0 at home. Something had to give.
The process of breaking that standoff wasn’t pretty, but even without leading scorer, Isaiah Livers, the Michigan men’s basketball team (17-9 overall, 8-7 Big Ten) held on to beat Rutgers (18-9, 9-7), 60-52, undaunted in a hostile environment.
It didn’t take long for the Scarlet Knights to get the Rutgers Athletic Center riled up. Down Livers — who’s now missed 10 games this season due to injury — and facing a talented backcourt, Michigan had to dig in.
Unsurprisingly, that grit came from their catalyst, senior guard Zavier Simpson. Simpson shot out of the gate with a pair of 3-pointers and his patented hook shot en route to 16 points. The Wolverines fed off their leader. Amidst recent struggles, senior center Jon Teske even nailed a 3-pointer.
“It’s nothing new,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “(Zavier’s) a smart enough player to know where the reads are. Any time a guy steps off you and you’re able to line it up, massage the ball, line the seams up and shoot it, it’s great. He was confident enough to take the shot, the ball went in.”
As the half progressed, sloppy possessions and turnovers — six for Michigan and five for Rutgers — were a more frequent occurrence than scoring plays. Still, Rutgers’ own energizing presence, guard Geo Baker, sent the Scarlet Knights into the locker room with a 31-28 edge after drilling a buzzer-beating triple.
With the Wolverines’ rotation thin in Livers’ absence, Howard needed someone from his bench to step up.
Sophomores Colin Castleton and David DeJulius answered the call. Castleton, who had played a total of five minutes in the last three games, converted an and-one layup to halt a 6-0 Rutgers run. Moments later, the 6-foot-11 forward plucked an offensive rebound out of nowhere, drawing a foul in the process.
“Not only the big bucket that came in the second half, but the energy he gave us on the court.” DeJulius said. “When you’re on the road you’ve got to bring your own energy. We were just so happy for him because he works so hard, and he deserves this and much more.”
Confident as usual, DeJulius knocked down consecutive jumpers — culminating in a 3-pointer from the corner — to hand the lead back over to the Wolverines with 9:14 to go.
Solitary spurts from the Scarlet Knights were quelled immediately by Michigan. Every time fiery Rutgers’ coach Steve Pikiell pumped his arms in encouragement, every time the crowd rose to their feet raising the decibel level to absurd heights, the Wolverines had an answer.
What did those answers look like? Junior guard Eli Brooks hitting a deep 3-pointer to extend Michigan’s lead to nine; sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. and DeJulius sinking three throws late; Brooks, catching a lead-out pass from Simpson and flushing it coolly on the other end.
“It comes from within your heart and within your mindset,” Howard said. “I think our guys displayed a lot of grit. When you talk about Rutgers, a very tough team who plays well at home, they put a lot of pressure on the rim, and today we protected the paint very well. … That’s part of the grit that I see from this group and I’m actually happy I’m able to coach it.”
In the end, it didn’t matter where they were or who they were without, the Wolverines stood tall in the face of adversity — something Howard says they’ve learned over time.
“I see a lot of growth in this group,” Howard said. “… Each and every guy in that locker room, on this team has always been positive about the process and now we’re improving. Obviously today we didn’t have one of our best player, but our guys did a terrific job of staying locked in and figuring it out. At times, it’s not always going to be pretty.”
Sure, Michigan extended its winning streak over Rutgers to 13-0, but more importantly, its victory over the much-improved Scarlet Knights on Wednesday indicates that the Wolverines have bought in, undaunted.