WASHINGTON — With just over 12 minutes left to play in the first half, Michigan held a 25-11 lead and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner was living it up on the Wolverines’ bench.
He sat grinning ear-to-ear, head reclined back looking at the jumbotron, raising his eyebrows at the pull-up jumper his point guard, Derrick Walton Jr., had just hit.
If only he knew what else was coming.
Though the Michigan men’s basketball team emerged with an 84-77 victory against Minnesota (24-9), Saturday afternoon’s matchup at the Verizon Center turned out to be a second-half thriller in which Wagner and the Wolverines would need Walton more than ever.
“It was another day that, as a coaching staff, you had opportunities to really appreciate your team (like) many times during the year, and that was a great opportunity to sit back and watch them play ball again,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.
“… What I like best is they played connected again. It was just a gutty performance. When Minnesota made that run to come back, Derrick, Zak, put the team on their back and we got the W.”
With the victory, the Wolverines (23-11) advanced to the Big Ten Tournament championship game, where they will face No. 2 seed Wisconsin.
The first half was Wagner’s forum. Michigan’s big man went through a tough stretch to begin the conference tournament, scoring just 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting. Only a day earlier, Beilein had said he didn’t like the way Wagner’s shot looked. But on Saturday, it sure looked pretty.
Wagner finally found his stroke against the fourth-seeded Golden Gophers and finished the frame with 14 points while going perfect from the floor and the charity stripe.
With Wagner as the headliner, Michigan’s offense shot 80 percent through the first five minutes to build a 21-9 lead from the get-go. The Wolverines didn’t slow down either, finishing the stanza shooting 63.3 percent from the field en route to an 11-point lead at the break.
“They jumped out on us early,” said Minnesota guard Dupree McBrayer. “We was a little sluggish. We thought it would be handed to us. That’s it. We got to come out with more intensity.”
And yet, things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows. Wagner picked up his second foul with 7:41 remaining, and with him on the bench for the remainder of the frame, the paint was open for the taking.
Twenty-six of Minnesota’s 44 points came from down low, and they attempted just four 3-pointers. For a brief period, it proved to be the recipe for success.
With 7:18 remaining, the Golden Gophers notched a 9-2 run to trim what was once a 16-point Michigan lead down to six. It didn’t last long, though.
Coming out of a timeout, the Wolverines went on a 10-5 run of their own to finish with an 11-point cushion at the break.
But that cushion vanished rather quickly. Minnesota opened the second half on fire, shooting 8-for-14 from the floor — including three straight from beyond the arc that were interrupted only by a pair of Walton free throws.
The connections from deep locked the game at 55 with just over 13 minutes remaining, and concretely shifted the momentum in the Golden Gophers’ favor, as Michigan had failed to hit a field goal in nearly six minutes.
The Wolverines kept their head above water but things looked bleak when Wagner picked up his fourth foul with 9:44 to go. The Wolverines were hanging on by a thread, and Minnesota had planted its roots firmly in the paint — dominating Michigan for 14 of its 23 second-half points.
Things didn’t get any easier when junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman joined Wagner on the bench with four fouls with 7:41 remaining.
And yet, as the Golden Gophers mounted a comeback attempt that had all the steam to end Michigan’s miracle run, Walton took matters into his own hands. First he knocked down a mid-range jumper. Then he buried two daggers from behind the arc to give Michigan a 72-63 lead it wouldn’t relinquish in the final five minutes of the game.
“Like we said before the game, nobody cares that you were tough yesterday,” Walton said. “It’s all about what you do today. I took that approach. Helped my team win it whatever way I could.”
Walton finished with a career-high 29 points, either scoring or assisting on 18 of the Wolverines’ 20 points in the final seven minutes.
Wagner may have gotten the ball rolling, but Walton finished the job, and now Michigan has a shot at their first Big Ten Tournament title since the Wolverines’ 1998 championship was vacated.
That’s certainly something Wagner can smile about.