BY DANIEL FELDMAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published January 14, 2014
After suffering an upset loss to Penn State last season in Happy Valley, the Michigan men’s basketball team came out on Tuesday determined to put all memory of the defeat behind it.
With help from freshman guard Derrick Walton Jr.’s 12 first-half points, the Wolverines did just that, defeating the Nittany Lions, 80-67.
From the start, it appeared Michigan (4-0 Big Ten, 12-4 overall) would be in control as Walton scored the first five points of the game in the first 24 seconds, while Penn State (0-5, 9-9) committed three turnovers in the first minute of action.
The Detroit native didn’t stop there either, as he swished another 3-pointer at the 17:39 mark to give Michigan an 8-0 lead.
Thanks to sloppy play on offense — eight first-half turnovers compared to two for the Wolverines — the Nittany Lions were forced to play catch-up the entire first half, with their deficit never getting below four.
However, in the second half, things started to resemble last year’s game. After leading by seven at the half, Michigan let Penn State continue its run from the end of the half to cut what had been a 13-point lead to 40-37.
With flashbacks of last year’s collapse coming back, starting from the end of the first half, Michigan put a quick end to the Nittany Lions’ outburst soon thereafter.
“We talked about (last year’s game) at halftime,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas. “We were up by seven or eight, I think it was the exact same thing at Penn State. We made that note, especially to Derrick and (freshman forward) Zak (Irvin) — the freshmen — saying we were in the same position last year, so we couldn’t let down.”
While Michigan coach John Beilein rejected the concept that he brought last year’s game up during intermission, saying he has the same approach to every game regardless of history or opponent, he was happy the players made note of the similarities.
Though the consequence of letting Penn State back in the game was reminiscent of last year, Michigan recovered from the Nittany Lions’ quick second-half start. After halting the run with a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Caris LeVert, Michigan hovered for a few minutes with a small lead before unleashing a 9-0 run — highlighted by an alley-oop from LeVert to sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III — to push the lead back to 12.
“They answered the bell every time,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. “You know what Nik’s going to do. You know what Robinson’s going to do. It’s the other guys you try to take care of that stepped up tonight.”
After the brief scare, Michigan never saw its lead fall back below eight. While Walton continued his hot play from Nebraska, finishing with a career-high 16 points, the Wolverines’ unselfishness on offense also enabled them to control the game. Racking up assists on 12 of their 14 baskets in the first half — with four apiece by LeVert and Stauskas — the Wolverines were able to work the ball all over the court, creating options for baskets in the paint (12 points) and from beyond the arc (six 3-pointers).
While being more of a distributor in the first half to go along with his eight points, Stauskas scored 13 in the second half on drives to the rim and 3-pointers to cushion Michigan’s lead.
“He’s got that great combination that very few people have,” Beilein said of Stauskas. “He can’t just shoot. He can really shoot. So now you can drive as well and you can pass. He’s really showing he can play the guard position.”
Added Stauskas: “In the second half, they played a little bit more honest and the lane was opening up for me, so I was just trying to be aggressive.”
Though Michigan led from start to finish, Penn State’s backcourt duo of D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier combined for 34 points and kept the game within reach, until John Johnson missed a triple with 2:19 left that would have put its deficit back to single digits.
With the missed opportunity, Michigan was able to run the clock down on long possessions and secured its sixth straight victory.