By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 25, 2014
EAST LANSING — At times, the noise level inside the Breslin Center was perhaps the loudest in the arena’s illustrious history.
But thanks to savvy, veteran-like composure from the Michigan men’s basketball team’s young backcourt, the small patches of maize, littered amongst the whiteout crowd, were making all the noise when the clock read zero Saturday night.
The Wolverines knocked off No. 3 Michigan State, 80-75, for their third consecutive regular-season top-10 victory — the first team to do so since Iowa in 1986-87 — to capture sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines have now won five of seven against their in-state rivals, avenging last season’s 23-point loss in East Lansing.
When asked if he would’ve believed Michigan could pull off that feat at the beginning of his career, fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan, an in-state product who never received recruiting attention from the Spartans, couldn’t hold back a smile.
“I might have, but I don’t know how many people would. It wouldn’t be a high percentage,” he said.
On the hinge of losing preseason All-American Mitch McGary, the Wolverines (7-0 Big Ten, 15-4 overall) emerged 3-0 from the toughest stretch of their season. But the victory Saturday night was due in large part to the absence of a pair of injured Spartan forwards, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
The game’s pregame hype was of course predicated on the impact the contest will likely have on this year’s regular-season Big Ten champion, but sophomore guard Nik Staukas and Spartan guard Gary Harris made it an individual battle, exchanging blows in a matchup that could decide the Big Ten Player of the Year.
The two put on quite a show in the nationally televised broadcast, combining for 46 points. Harris led all scorers with 27 points, while Stauskas’s 19 paced Michigan for most of the night. Thanks to a late flurry of clutch free throws, freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. matched Stauskas’s scoring output — a sign of poise for a freshman who has struggled with consistency.
Stauskas’s 3-pointer with just over three minutes to play broke a 60-60 tie. Thirty seconds later, sophomore guard Caris LeVert came up with a steal and passed ahead to Walton, who converted a layup and the ensuing and-1 free throw to give Michigan a six-point lead. After four ties and four lead changes throughout the game, the Wolverines had finally grabbed an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish.
Walton, a Detroit native who grew up in the heart of the in-state rivalry, said it was the biggest play he’s ever made.
“I’ve had many memorable plays, but you know, doing it here, in front of this crowd, with these guys just makes it much more special,” Walton said.
Knowing the six-point lead could evaporate quickly, Walton maintained the reins to stay in command. With the Spartans (7-1, 18-2) looking to foul on each Michigan possession down the stretch, the freshman stayed composed and demanded the ball. He converted nine of his 10 chances from the charity stripe to seal the win. Michigan coach John Beilein rewarded Walton by having him lead the post-game singing of ‘The Victors’ in the locker room — the team’s version of earning the game ball.
“I always feel like a freshman, but I know I had to play like a veteran,” Walton said.
After last season’s loss at the Breslin Center, Morgan was critical of the team’s leadership. On Saturday, he commended the leadership of a freshman floor general.
“Our system can get complicated, and some guys can just get caught trying to tread water,” Morgan said. “(Walton) stepped up, hit some big shots, big finishes, and for a freshman on the road like that to step up and knock down all those free throws at the end of the game, it was huge.”
After Michigan State took a 36-30 lead into the break, the teams spent most of the second half trading baskets. Michigan finally tied the game with just under eight minutes remaining and took the lead moments later.
And after spending most of the night guarding Stauskas, Harris’s offense went quiet down the stretch. His only points in the game’s final seven minutes were a 3-pointer with 17 seconds to play when the game was all but decided.
Beilein couldn’t have drawn up a better start to the game. The Wolverines didn’t seem to skip a beat from their back-to-back top-10 wins, scoring 10 of the game’s first 12 points. Walton drilled a 3-pointer on Michigan’s first offensive possession, and Stauskas scored the Wolverines’ next five points.
But the Spartans responded with a 19-6 run to give them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish until just after the under-eight timeout in the second half, a few minutes before Stauskas and Walton’s decisive plays.
For Morgan, winning two games in East Lansing — the Wolverines also won at the Breslin Center in 2011 for the first time in nearly 15 years — is a feat he knows is difficult to overlook.
“Obviously, this is a big game for everyone involved,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotions involved. To take two is a big deal. I don’t know how many people do that, so it’s something to be proud of.”