By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 1, 2014
The Michigan men’s basketball team figured it would move a step closer to a Big Ten regular-season championship by beating Minnesota Saturday night.
Following a Michigan State loss mere minutes before tipoff, the Wolverines knew they could clinch at least a share with a victory.
And that’s what they did, topping the Golden Gophers, 66-56, to claim a piece of the title for the second time in three years.
Michigan can top the Big Ten outright with a win in either of its two remaining games.
After starting off slowly — 3-for-14 shooting from the field, 1-for-9 from beyond the arc — No. 16 Michigan (13-3 Big Ten, 21-7 overall) ended the first half on a 22-5 run highlighted by two alley-oop dunks by sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III to take a 31-20 lead.
Following a stagnant offensive performance in the opening minutes, the Wolverines made up for the poor showing by going 10-for-12 from the field the rest of the first half to shoot 50 percent from the field in the frame.
Minnesota still stuck around still, even after Michigan’s hot finish to the first half. Cutting an 11-point deficit to two in the middle of the second period, the Golden Gophers remained within striking distance.
Just minutes into the second half Golden Gophers missed a 3-pointer that the Wolverines took advantage of by quickly running up the court for an alley-oop from sophomore guard Caris LeVert to Robinson.
And Robinson’s play underneath the basket down didn’t stop there, either. On the next possession, Robinson gathered a LeVert 3-point miss and gently lofted the ball in to push the lead back to six.
After having the game-winning basket at the buzzer against Purdue, Michigan coach John Beilein has noticed a change in Robinson’s play.
“He’s much more aggressive,” Beilein said. “I think he’s having fun. I think he’s really embracing the idea that he’s a leader on this team and I’m going to have no matter what’s happening and do some of the stuff people don’t appreciate.”
Perhaps the most important sequence beneath came a few possessions later. What started with fifth-year center Jordan Morgan fighting for a loose ball to keep possession for Michigan, followed with sophomore guard Spike Albrecht twice preventing it from going out of bounds. Albrecht’s tip back in bounds ultimately turned into a Morgan layup.
Calling the play “completely instinct,” Albrecht’s effort was seen as even larger according to Minnesota coach Richard Pitino.
“That was the play of the game, in my opinion,” he said. “We had a chance to get it. They had to get a chance to get it. I thought that changed the game.”
With momentum back in its favor, Michigan outscored Minnesota 12-4 in the final 3:40, with the dagger coming via an Albrecht triple with 1:13 left.
“It was huge,” Morgan said, harping back Albrecht and his battle for the 50-50 ball. “We probably had a four-minute segment right there when we were fighting for loose basketballs, getting stops when we needed it.
“Three, four, five possessions in there we dictated what happened by getting big stops, working the extra possessions on offense. And that’s the difference in the game at the end of day.”
Though Robinson’s acrobatic show was the climax of the first half, the play of sophomore guard Nik Stauskas and LeVert was a major contributing factor as well, combining for 34 points.
With the score tied at 16 with 6:26 remaining, the duo either had an assist or scored on all but one possession as Michigan ended the half on a 15-4 run. Stauskas tallied six points and LeVert four in the sequence as the game that had started so slowly began to transform into a track meet. Multiple Minnesota (7-10, 18-12) turnovers led to open 3’s for Stauskas and LeVert and room for liftoff for Robinson underneath the hoop.
And this fall, Michigan will be lifting another banner to adorn the ceiling of the Crisler Center.