By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 21, 2012
NEW YORK — The lights were bright, the stage big and the challenge bigger than anything the No. 4 Michigan basketball team had seen this season, but none of them could trip up the Wolverines.
Pittsburgh, arms waving and bodies flying, stood up to Michigan for the first three-quarters of the NIT Preseason Tip-Off semifinal before falling victim to the Wolverines’ balanced attack at Madison Square Garden, 67-62.
Earlier in the month, Michigan had the fluid, refined offensive machine to put inferior opponents away early and look good doing it. That was taken away with the Panthers’ grind-it-out style of play, but it wasn’t enough to hold the Wolverines down for a full 40 minutes.
“I think everybody is going to give us their best game because they know we’re ranked,” said junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “We have to be prepared and ready for any possibility they throw at us.”
In the final 10 minutes, Michigan displayed why it was billed as highly as it was.
Spacing the floor and using all of their weapons, the Wolverines converted on chances and never let the Panthers get by with an easy possession.
Freshman forward Glenn Robinson III was silenced in the first half, but found his rhythm late. An inside-outside threat, Robinson was effective with his jumper Wednesday night. His 11 points in the second half fueled Michigan’s comeback, and sophomore guard Trey Burke’s free-throw shooting late staved off a Pittsburgh comeback.
“We did just enough to win the game,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.
Beyond the 3:55 mark in the first half until the final quarter of the game, Michigan struggled to erase a deficit. Pittsburgh’s defense frustrated the Wolverine threats who were used to taking over the past three games.
Burke couldn’t penetrate the lane at will, and Robinson wasn’t as dynamic — particularly in the early goings. The Panthers’ active hands on defense forced long possessions and contested shots from Michigan. Offensive rebounds were hard to come by.
But those threats found other ways in crunch time. Maybe Burke wasn’t scoring at will, but he was facilitating the offense. He went 5-for-16 and didn’t make a 3-pointer, but finished with a game-high 17 points and added five assists.
Robinson couldn’t create his own shot in the paint, so he rebounded a miss from freshman center Mitch McGary and put it in to give Michigan a six-point lead with under five minutes remaining.
Hardaway’s hot 3-point shooting carried him to a strong start this season, but he made just one of seven shots from distance, so he attacked the rim and scored 11 points in the last 10 minutes to finish with 16 points.
Beilein also departed from his early-November habits. He had previously employed a strictly man-to-man defense, but Wednesday night he threw some 1-3-1 looks at the Panthers’ attack, which was stifled throughout the second half.
“We’ve been working on it a little bit, just to change things up,” Beilein said. “We were really having trouble with some of their pick-and-roll action. They’re really good at it. And then, the biggest thing was it puts them in position to offensive rebound. Usually you don’t rebound as well out of zones. But certainly in the first half, if they did miss, they had a put-back.”
The Panthers weren’t on fire in the first half, and it’s not as though they played with any more precision than the Wolverines, but they were persistent. They scored in the paint and held their ground on the glass. That reversed in the second half. A minus-one rebounding differential turned into positive-12 by game’s end.
Also turning was Michigan’s three-point lead, which became nine with a minute and a half left before a Trey Woodall 3-pointer brought Pittsburgh back within three with 30 seconds left. The Panthers stayed relentless in the final minute, but the Wolverine free-throw shooting was true.
“We put ourselves in situations in practice where we may be up three with 30 seconds or we may be down one with 10 seconds,” Burke said. The coaches do a good job of putting us in those scenarios day in and day out. When it comes to game time, we just tell each other to win the game and go up there and shoot it with confidence.”
Robinson, freshman guard Nik Stauskas and Burke — twice — all made a pair of free throws in the last minute, and a fortuitous possession arrow in Michigan’s favor staved off a potential tie attempt from the Panthers. Michigan stood its ground.
Something else will have to do to beat this team.