When Texas’ Tevin Mack strutted into the locker room after hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, it looked like it was happening again.
The Longhorn guard went on a 6-0 individual run in the final minute of the first half, reducing Michigan’s lead to three. Mack himself turned what looked like a comfortable halftime margin for the Wolverines into a nightmarish flashback to Michigan’s collapse last week against Virginia Tech.
“Again, it was the exact same type of action that Virginia Tech ran against us,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It’s a dribble-weave with a guy setting a screen to get the guy open, and we stopped on it again. It was the exact same thing.”
Runs at the end of each half against the Hokies ultimately cost Michigan an important home non-conference win. Beilein even called the defense the Wolverines played over those two stretches “as bad of defense we’re played here, ever.”
But, unlike last week, Michigan wasn’t relying on its defense to stay out of a hole against Texas — it had already fallen into one, and it needed its defense to get it out.
With four minutes remaining, facing a three-point deficit and an offense that struggled all night to ignite, the Wolverines needed stops on defense more than ever.
And this time, they delivered.
Michigan held Texas to just two points in the final four minutes, forcing the Longhorns to miss four of their final five shots. The Wolverine defense finally came through in crunch time to give Michigan the 53-50 win.
“Our kids just sat down and guarded,” Beilein said. “Nobody could make a shot. It wasn’t a pretty offensive game. But we got it done when we had to get it done.”
Leading Michigan’s defensive effort were two players who were absent in the final stretch of the Wolverines’ flop against Virginia Tech: redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner.
Wilson fouled out with three minutes to go last Wednesday, but his presence on the court this time may have made the difference. He was the one who came up with the steal with 30 seconds left that set up the possession in which Michigan took its final lead. All night he was menacing Texas’ forwards on the boards while getting two blocks as well.
But Wilson’s largest contribution in crunch time may have come much earlier. The forward was matched up with the Longhorns’ highly touted forward Jarrett Allen, who entered Tuesday averaging 11 points and seven rebounds per game.
Wilson proved to be a difficult matchup for Allen much of the game. Wilson used his wingspan to get over the 6-foot-11 forward and to force him into uncomfortable positions competing for rebounds that got Allen in trouble.
Allen ultimately fouled out with 55 seconds to go. The impact of having Allen out showed itself on the basket when the Wolverines took the lead for good, as Wagner grabbed an offensive rebound and put away the winning basket.
Wagner, too, was essential in making big defensive plays down the stretch.
The most important one came in the final seconds, when the forward got up and blocked Texas forward Eric Davis Jr.’s shot, sealing the victory.
“Moe’s block at the end was big,” Beilein said. “Moe’s blocking shots really for the first time in his life … he’s learning when he should leave his feet, when he shouldn’t, and be a bigger presence at the rim.”
Wagner’s defensive shortcomings have plagued Michigan often in the past. But in crunch time against the Longhorns, the sophomore’s improvements protecting the rim may have saved the Wolverines when they needed to hang onto a lead for just a few more moments.
“I thought he’s making major steps defensively right now,” said Beilein. “I was shocked. When I wanted to make a defensive substitution at the end and put Mark in for Moe, Billy said, ‘No, Moe is really hedging the ball screen well.’ So we stayed with him down the stretch.”
Michigan’s complete second-half defensive performance set the tone for what transpired in the final minutes.
The Wolverines played smart defense, staying out of foul trouble. That led to Michigan having multiple fouls to give on Texas’s final possession in case it needed to use them.
The Longhorns were held to just 35 percent shooting in the final period and struggled to find any sort of answer offensively that could help them come up with the scores they needed.
In the end, it was Wilson and Wagner’s resurgence that earned Michigan a non-conference win it had to have.
“You don’t see us win many where it’s just about our defense,” Beilein said. “It was gritty, it was tough in the last two minutes. Everything it wasn’t in Virginia Tech, the last two or three minutes, it was tonight.”