- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 2, 2014
MINNEAPOLIS — Just over two hours into Big Ten play was all it took for fans’ anxiety and fear for the Michigan men’s basketball season to turn into unbridled relief.
All the question marks that have hounded the Wolverines since — and even before — sophomore forward Mitch McGary was announced out for the season were floated, and then put on hold for the time being, as the Wolverines bested Minnesota 63-60 in Williams Arena Thursday night.
A last-second heave from the Golden Gophers was too strong and Michigan escaped The Barn undeterred, if not unscathed.
Questions that have lingered for the past few weeks came into play once again as Michigan fought adversity during the second half.
Could Michigan get the trio of sophomore wings Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert to produce enough to moderate the effect of an injured McGary? It didn’t help when Robinson had to leave the game early in the second half with an ankle injury. And it didn’t help that LeVert and Stauskas combined for 18 points — 14 of which came from Stauskas. But the next wing off the bench, Zak Irvin, lit up the arena with 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc to keep Michigan level with Minnesota.
“He had a hot hand,” Horford said. “I think everyone was trying to get him the ball. There was one time I had a basket — I was like three feet away from the basket, and I threw it to Zak because why not feed the hot hand.”
The status of Robinson after the game was unknown — he tried to run in the hallway after returning from the trainer, but couldn’t put any weight on the leg, according to Michigan coach John Beilein.
Could the carousel in the frontcourt come close to replacing McGary’s production? It didn’t appear so when Minnesota’s Elliott Eliason earned a double-double with ten points and ten rebounds on six shots, outmuscling a handful of Wolverines on offensive-rebound attempts.
But redshirt junior Jon Horford was persistent down low and displayed his own offensive ability to match the Gopher center. Horford showed soft touch around the rim, as well as power by way of an emphatic dunk off a Stauskas dish, all in the last five minutes. Horford finished with 14 points and nine rebounds to give Michigan a worthy contender in the battle of the big men.
Would freshman point guard Derrick Walton be able to be a threat for the conference season? It didn’t seem like it. Walton scored no points in the first half while his counterpart, DeAndre Mathieu, scored seven. But Walton’s 3-pointer early in the second half to stymie a threatening Gopher run helped steer Michigan back into its comfort zone. And his two free throws in the final minutes gave Michigan a five-point lead, its biggest of the game to that point. Walton scored seven points with four assists and one turnover.
“I thought Derrick Walton grew up a lot today,” Beilein said. “Just being in this game, having a player with two years of college experience all over him (in Mathieu), he did a really wonderful job of running our club.”
In McGary’s stead, Robinson protected the paint as best he could during the game. In the first 22 minutes, he blocked four shots, filling in as the imposing athletic presence under the rim Michigan missed. But the ankle injury forced Horford back into that role.
“Glenn’s a great player,” Horford said. “With him we are a better team without a doubt, but it’s next man up. We can’t do anything about that situation except for move on and keep playing hard.”
Added Beilein on McGary and Robinson’s absence: “I don’t even think about it. You’re just trying to find a way to win the game. You don’t think about what you don’t have.”
The momentum turned five minutes into the second half when the Golden Gophers were in position to run away with the game. Down six and after Robinson exited the game, freshman guard Zak Irvin had missed a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner that Mathieu took the other way. Mathieu, who drove to the hoop because, unlike his namesake, he certainly ‘do care,’ drew a foul call that beckoned Michigan coach John Beilein onto the court to yell at officials until he was heard.
All seemed to be going against the Wolverines especially when, on the ensuing possession, Minnesota pulled down consecutive offensive rebounds. The Gophers, though, couldn’t convert and a 3-pointer from Walton downed the deficit to three.
With 13 minutes remaining, another 3-pointer by Zak Irvin reduced the Minnesota advantage to one before Morgan made a hook shot to give Michigan a lead, one they would not stray far from the rest of the way.
Pressure defense helped to stave off the Golden Gopher attack in the final minutes, and two free throws by Stauskas — after he fouled 3-point shooter Malik Smith to give Minnesota a chance to tie on the ensuing possession — helped to seal the deal.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I fouled him,” Stauskas said. “The refs made the call though. I thought he kinda just kicked his legs out. We’ve got to beat the other team, we’ve got to beat the refs, we’ve got to beat the crowd, and that’s what we did today.”
Mathieu’s heave to tie as the clock expired caromed off the backboard, and then the rim, before the ball fell to the court and the Wolverines skittered out of The Barn with a pep in their step and the first road win of the season.