At the under-12 minute media timeout during the second half, the Michigan men’s basketball team found itself down 12 with a Penn State one-and-one free throw opportunity coming.
The Wolverines huddled around senior wing Zak Irvin, who repeated over and over that Michigan wasn’t going to fall short and drop to 0-2 in the Big Ten.
“Our emotional leaders said we’re not going to lose this game,” said redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson.
Coach John Beilein then intervened in the timeout before play resumed and drew up a play to get his 3-point specialist Robinson open.
The Wolverines (1-1 Big Ten, 11-4 overall) ran the play on the ensuing possession, getting Robinson open for an open jump shot.
Michigan quickly got the ball back the following play and found Robinson open again behind the arc. Robinson hit the shot to close the deficit to seven as the Wolverines came roaring back to win, 72-69, against the Nittany Lions (1-2, 9-7) at Crisler Center on Wednesday night.
“The team really looks for the seniors, especially Derrick (Walton Jr.) and myself, especially during those moments,” Irvin said. “I knew something needed to be said to be able to motivate our guys and light the fire under us. I’m happy it worked.”
Added Beilein: “I didn’t have to say anything. The (players) were all charged up and extremely upset with each other. I didn’t have to say a whole lot … and the rest took care of itself. We needed that.”
As Wilson mentioned, it was the seniors who led the huddle during the under-12 timeout. But they also led out on the court with their play.
Besides an alley-oop dunk from Wilson that was assisted by Walton, the upperclassmen trio of Irvin, Walton and Robinson scored the majority of Michigan’s points in the final 12 minutes.
The two seniors — Walton and Irvin — especially, were key to the Wolverines’ victory down the stretch.
“Our seniors, who were not on their ‘A’ game, were certainly nothing short of spectacular in those last five minutes, ” Beilein said. “They made the foul shots, they made plays, they threw the (alley-oop). They did a lot of great things and committed to their defense.”
After putting up a combined stat line of six points, two boards and no assists in the first half, the duo changed course, finishing the second half with a combined 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
“We knew we had to make adjustments (at half),” Irvin said.
It was a similar performance to Michigan’s last game against Iowa on New Year’s Day, when the Wolverines lost an 86-83 heartbreaker in overtime.
In Iowa City, the duo also combined for 22 points in the second half and overtime after Walton mustered just three points in the first half. Irvin didn’t fare much better against the Hawkeyes, as he was held scoreless in the first frame.
But Wednesday, while the trend was the same, the result was different — the Wolverines escaped with a victory on the back of timely shooting from their most experienced players.
It’s an encouraging sign from a team that seemingly plays better when its emotional leaders shoot well.
“It’s everything (when the seniors are playing well),” Wilson said. “It’s big time. They’re our leaders vocally, and they lead by example. So when we see them getting it going at the end like they did at the end of the second half, it changes everything.”
The question now is if the seniors can string together a complete game — something they proved they could do in New York City — on a consistent basis.
If they can, Wednesday night showed Michigan has a favorable Big Ten slate ahead of it.