By Simon Kaufman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 15, 2014
INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan survived again.
A week after celebrating the outright Big Ten regular-season championship on its home court, the No. 8 Michigan men’s basketball team has the chance to celebrate again — this time with a Big Ten Tournament title.
With seven seconds left, sophomore guard Spike Albrecht missed the back end of two free throws, giving Ohio State (25-9) a chance to hit a 3-pointer to tie the game.
Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft elevated for an open look from beyond the arc, but the ball slipped from his hands. A sea of Wolverines swallowed up the loose ball as time expired with Michigan on top, 72-69.
The result places Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament final for the first time since 1998. The Wolverines will play Michigan State Sunday afternoon.
The game-changing play Saturday came with just more than two minutes left. Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas got by his defender in the corner, penetrated down the baseline and finished on the opposite side of the rim with a circus-like reverse layup. When the ball fell in, it gave Michigan a three-point advantage and helped ease the scare of letting the game slip away after the Wolverines led by as many as 16 points in the first half.
“I was thinking shoot the whole time,” Stauskas said. “Because I kind of knew (Ohio State guard) Shannon Scott wasn't going to take a charge. He was going to try to jump, and that’s a shot I work on all the time, just a little reverse layup with some spin on it. I was pretty confident going into that one.”
Stauskas scored the game’s first points, knocking down a shot from beyond the arc, and a day after going 2-for-10 from 3-point range, the 6-foot-6 guard hit four deep balls and finished with a team-high 18 points.
He put up another 3-point attempt with the shot clock expiring late in the game but missed. Sophomore guard Caris LeVert — who usually heads back on defense after shots — saw an opportunity to get the rebound and wrangled in the ball. The heads-up play by LeVert forced the Buckeyes to foul, sending Albrecht to the line.
There, Albrecht split the two attempts, setting Craft’s gaffe on the 3-point attempt.
After Stauskas’ early trey, forward Glenn Robinson III followed, sinking a 3-pointer. Two possessions later, he finished a layup and then hit a baseline jumper. On the defensive end, fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan drew a charge and threw down a dunk after the turnover, stretching Michigan’s lead to 15-2 less than four minutes into the contest.
The Wolverines (25-7) continued to push the ball up the court, running a fast-paced offense that Ohio State struggled to match. Later in the first half, freshman guard Derrick Walton Jr. forced a steal and found LeVert all alone up the court. The sophomore finished an easy dunk, helping Michigan double up the Buckeyes, 32-16.
After starting the game shooting 1-for-5 from the field, the Ohio State’s shots finally started falling, and it closed the half on a 15-4 run to cut the score to 41-37 heading into the locker room.
But one of the country’s best defenses in the country couldn’t keep Michigan from getting clean looks from the perimeter. Michigan made 12 of its 23 attempts from outside the arc.
Stauskas and Walton traded 3’s to start the second half. Stauskas opened the frame with a trey from straightaway, Walton followed with one of his own, and then Stauskas came back down to sink another, pushing the Wolverines’ lead back into double digits.
But the Buckeyes chipped away. They strung together a 17-4 run, capped off by an electrifying alley-oop dunk by forward Sam Thompson, giving them a 61-60 lead and the momentum after struggling early on.
“I think the big changes were the points off turnovers,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “(Ohio State) had seven steals in the first half and we had seven turnovers … and in the second half, they got three or four more. We did have some shots that didn’t drop, but I was happy with our defense. We played exceptionally well in the start of the game. That couldn't last.”
But Michigan’s even-keeled play down the stretch did last, preventing Ohio State from extending its advantage to more than three points. That put the Wolverines in position to regain the lead late and inch closer to a Big Ten Tournament championship.