In its first two games, it seldom looked easy for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Both North Florida and Central Michigan challenged the Wolverines with zone defenses rarely utilized at the college level.
But against a mostly man-to-man defense — facing Michigan’s weakest opponent to date statistically in Southern Mississippi — it seemed like the night the Wolverines would finally roll.
It wasn’t — at least until late in the game.
After trailing at the half, the Wolverines (3-0) used a 21-1 run during the second half to dispatch the Golden Eagles (1-1), 61-47, at Crisler Center on Thursday night.
That run started with the fingertips of junior forward Moritz Wagner, who hit a free-throw line jumper to bring Michigan within two points. Then, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson hit an open corner three — as he did two possessions later to extend the Wolverines’ advantage to seven.
Moments later, sophomore forward Jon Teske — who again showed that he’s a much-improved player this year with 10 points and 11 rebounds Thursday — added a pair of jumpers and Robinson hit another three.
Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman led Michigan in scoring with 12 and 14 points, respectively.
Defensively, Michigan forced Southern Mississippi to miss nine straight shots and concede four turnovers in what was the Wolverines’best stretch of their young season on both ends of the floor.
“We just played and trusted what we were doing,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “A whole lot of good things were happening there.”
Added Teske: “We knew our shots would fall in the second half. So, defensively, in the second half, we really just got down and guarded.”
The Wolverines were nearly as solid to start the contest, too.
Unlike the two previous games, Michigan was dominant to start the game and rode the scoring abilities of Wagner and senior guard Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman out to a 14-point lead midway through the first half.
But just as things began to look comfortable for the Wolverines, Southern Mississippi caught fire, using a 9-0 run to close its deficit to one.
And in the final moments of the first half, Golden Eagles guard Tyree Griffin stepped back and sunk a corner three to give Southern Mississippi a 33-32 lead going into the break.
Suddenly, the Wolverines were in another battle.
The start of the second half provided back-and-forth, defensive-minded action, as the teams combined for just 13 points eight minutes into the frame.
Shortly later, strong ball movement allowed Michigan to have three consecutive open looks from the perimeter. After he missed the first two, Robinson connected from the left corner to give the Wolverines a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Despite the win, Beilein wasn’t impressed with his offense, which stagnated at moments throughout the contest. Just 61 points on 13 assists marks Michigan’s worst scoring output of the year.
“Our offense was awful today,” Beilein said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we hadn’t played a game of man-offense since maybe our scrimmages. It was stagnant and not good, and the ball was sticking all over the place.”
But a bright spot on that end of the floor was Teske, who earned his first career double-double Thursday.
Just as he did in the Wolverines’ first two games, Teske provided a spark off the bench. After hitting a 15-footer and grabbing a defensive rebound, Teske put back a missed Abdur-Rahkman 3-pointer just moments after coming off the bench.
“I’m just playing my game,” Teske said. “Guys are pushing me every day in practice and telling me that I’m capable of doing that. It just showed tonight.
“First double-double of my college career is definitely special. Now that I’m done with that, I know I have a lot more in the tank to give to this team.”