After an 85-69 blowout loss to Illinois, the Michigan men’s basketball team left Champaign battered, bruised and with what now appears to have been a wake-up call. The Wolverines were bullied inside the paint by the Fighting Illini’s duo of forwards, Maverick Morgan and Kipper Nichols — who scored 16 and 13 points, respectively.
Fueled by a dig from Morgan calling them a “white-collar team” and by a team meeting called by senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., the Wolverines (2-3 Big Ten, 12-6 overall) responded emphatically in their next game against Nebraska (3-2, 9-8) on Saturday.
Led by its own duo in sophomore Moritz Wagner and senior Zak Irvin — who scored 23 and 21 points and notched six and five rebounds, respectively — Michigan took its physicality to a new level and pulled out a 91-85 victory over the Cornhuskers.
“We just weren’t happy with the way we were playing,” Irvin said. “… Just being able to hit the reset button. This game was the beginning of a new season, and that’s what we wanted to key on, and we were able to do that.”
Irvin set the tone for the afternoon on the Wolverines’ very first possession, bursting into the paint and laying it off the glass to open the scoring. He went back to the basket time and time again throughout the game, forcing his way into the middle and heading to the rim without hesitation.
His first 10 points came off layups, and his fearless attitude opened up space on the outside for the Wolverines to exploit. On Michigan’s second trip up the court, he put on the same move that earned him his opening layup. But with the defense in ready position, he swung the ball out to an open Wagner on the perimeter instead. Wagner gladly repaid him, nailing the straightaway 3-pointer.
All seven of Irvin’s assists on the day led to 3-pointers — a career-high four for Wagner, two for Walton and one for redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson.
“Just trying to be able to make plays for myself downhill or for others, and really just trying to get to the free-throw line as well,” Irvin said. “Get some easy points, get into a rhythm and then that can set up for an array of other things.”
Left completely unmarked later in the first half, Wagner didn’t settle for another 3-pointer. He drove to the hoop through an open lane and threw down a one-handed slam with the full force of his 6-foot-11 frame.
Wagner cut straight to the rim again with a minute left in the stanza, but his defender knocked him to the ground to prevent another highlight slam. Instead, he went to the foul line and sunk both attempts. He had four made free throws in the frame and would add three more in the second, as nearly a third of his career-high point total came from the charity stripe.
“We have just emphasized, ‘Get two feet in the paint,’ ” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “… We’re trying to get guys to drive through that first bump, and they did it better a couple times today.”
The Wolverines, as a whole, benefited considerably from their trips to the free-throw line. They finished the first half 7-for-7 and the second 19-for-23 — 10 of which came from Irvin and Walton down the stretch while the Cornhuskers desperately attempted to launch a comeback.
Leading up to those free throws that closed out the game, Irvin and Wagner teamed up one more time to put the nail in Nebraska’s coffin. The pair executed a pick-and-roll, and instead of feeding Wagner, Irvin kept the ball and finished it off himself, laying it up once more to give Michigan a six-point lead it wouldn’t give up.
“We gotta be able to fight through adversity,” Irvin said. “We’re in a tough stretch right now, starting off 1-3, but being able to get a win against Nebraska is a step in the right direction. … This is when we find out what teams are made of and what we’re made of, and for us to be able to bounce back like this is huge.”
With the way the first two weeks of their conference season had gone, Irvin and Wagner understood the stakes, and the Cornhuskers simply couldn’t stop them from exerting their will on the game.