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As freshman wing Jett Howard lay sprawled on the floor writhing in pain just minutes before the end of the first half, it was clear he wouldn’t return to the Michigan men’s basketball team’s matchup with Minnesota. Restrained to the bench with a boot on his ankle, the scene left Wolverines coach Juwan Howard with no choice but to begin the second half with one of the game’s non-starters. 

Juwan selected graduate guard Joey Baker to fill the hole Jett’s absence left. Alongside redshirt freshman forward Will Tschetter and freshman forward Tarris Reed Jr., Baker and company took on substantial minutes. Although none of them put up particularly impressive stats, the bench players did just enough against Minnesota to grind out a win for the Wolverines.

“I love how our guys respond as far as next man up mentality,” Juwan said. “And still not making excuses for themselves because they have the right to. But they still love going out there competing and are going to lay it all out on the line.”

But the bench got involved even before Jett went down. Just six minutes into the contest, Juwan subbed Tschetter in for junior forward Terrance Williams II, hoping to ignite a spark. Michigan had quickly dug itself into a hole, allowing the Golden Gophers an 8-0 start to the game. 

Minutes later, Reed joined Tschetter on the floor after taking junior center Hunter Dickinson’s place. While neither had an immediate impact on the stat sheet, their presence on the floor was enough to keep them in check and generate a little offensive momentum before the under-12 timeout.

“Will came in and brought big time energy in the first half and that’s what I expected, because he’s a competitor,” Juwan said. “He’s also an all-in kind of guy, and his teammates cheer for him and trust him and know what he’s capable of.”

After the timeout, Baker joined Tschetter and Reed on the floor, rounding out a trio that saw plenty of playing time in Sunday’s game. As Michigan’s starters continued to flounder on both ends of the floor, the bench squad’s minutes proved crucial in shifting the tide midway through the first half. 

Tschetter added a key bucket off a spin move in the lane. Baker nabbed defensive rebounds and blocked a Minnesota shot in the paint. But as the half wore on and Michigan failed to take a lead, the trio was sent back to the bench in favor of the starters. 

Although they finished the half on the bench, it was their contributions that ensured the Wolverines entered the locker room tied at 23, after trailing most of the half.

At the start of the second half, Baker once again took the floor in Jett’s place. And in a similar fashion to the first, Michigan looked to the bench trio to halt the quick lead the Golden Gophers had built. Baker helped do so by nabbing an offensive rebound and putting it back up and in.

But just minutes later, Baker lunged for a steal but missed the breakaway layup, and Minnesota capitalized with a transition 3-pointer on the opposite end. With the mistake, he was sent back to the bench in favor of Tschetter. That series of plays was indicative of the bench players’ ability to provide a spark, but not completely put the game out of reach for the Golden Gophers.

As Minnesota continued to keep the game close down the stretch, Michigan decided to turn to its big lineup, with both Reed and Dickinson working the paint. Reed continued to find his footing drawing key fouls and spreading the floor for the guards.

Tschetter also faced clutch shots at the charity stripe with just 30 seconds left. Despite attempting just nine three throws on the season, he made both, giving the Wolverines a five-point lead — one they’d narrowly hold onto until the final buzzer. 

“Will’s our spark,” freshman guard Dug McDaniel said. “He’s always high energy even though he’s not doing the right thing, his energy just picks us up and frustrates the other team because he’s so high motor.”

Baker, Tschetter and Reed didn’t lead in any statistics. They didn’t nab the most rebounds or play the most minutes, but the intangibles they contributed were necessary in Sunday’s must-win game over the Big Ten bottomfeeding Golden Gophers.