Trio of sophomores carry Michigan past Spartans

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Simon Kaufman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 23, 2014

The Michigan men’s basketball team has been waiting for a game like it had on Sunday for nearly a year.

It’s been anticipating it since forward Glenn Robinson III announced his return last April, since guard Nik Stauskas emerged as the team’s top player this season and since guard Caris LeVert surfaced as the Wolverines’ most-improved player.

Michigan has been waiting to see the sophomore trio — each capable of single-handedly taking over a game — do so together. On Sunday, when the three shared, shot and scored in ensemble fashion, the result was a 79-70 win over Michigan State.

Stauskas, LeVert and Robinson combined for 63 points — the most between them all season, scoring 25, 23 and 15 points, respectively.

In the first half, LeVert stepped up. With Stauskas and Robinson taking just seven shots, LeVert attacked the rim to keep the Wolverines in the game by himself. He scored 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field in the first 20 minutes, and his buzzer-beater 3-pointer as time expired at the end of the half helped cut Michigan State’s lead to just two. The corner three cut what was once an 11-point deficit into a one-possession game and gave the Wolverines the momentum heading into the second half.

“It was kinda a bang-bang play,” LeVert said. “(Michigan State guard Gary) Harris got a layup at one end, and they probably thought the half was going to be over, and I just snuck out in transition and Nik found me. … Us getting the last bucket, that was big for us, big for our crowd.”

In the second half, LeVert took a back seat, and Stauskas and Robinson took control. The two combined for the first 18 points of the second frame.

With 13 minutes left in the half, Stauskas finished a layup to tie the game at 48. Just more than a minute later, he pulled up and knocked down a jumper at the top of the key to pull Michigan ahead by two points — a lead it wouldn’t give back. In his best half of the season, Stauskas shot 7-of-10, including three treys, finishing with 21 points in the frame.

With 2:33 left in the game, Stauskas penetrated toward the hoop, drawing two Spartan defenders, and then tossed an alley-oop dunk to a wide-open Robinson. Robinson reached behind his head for the ball, threw the dunk down and drew the Crisler Center crowd to its feet.

“When I threw it, I thought it was a horrible pass because it was way behind him,” Stauskas said. “And he kinda paused in the air and reached back. It was a great play by Glenn.”

The 6-foot-6 forward had 11 points in the half including two free throws down the stretch to help seal the deal for the Wolverines.

“I think all three of us were feeding off each other,” Robinson said. “For them two, they’re shooting the ball well, or driving, that (makes it) easy for my cuts.”

Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “Everybody was really connected the whole game. We had no one ball-begging. We had no one not willing to share the ball because they hadn’t had a shot in a while.”

It was just the fourth time in Big Ten play this season that each member of the threesome has scored in double digits. They accomplished the feat on the road against Nebraska and in both of their games against Wisconsin. In Michigan’s upset of the then-third-ranked Badgers in Madison, the three sophomores combined for 57 points. On the season, when they’re all in double figures, Michigan is 6-2, with the two losses coming against then-No. 1 Arizona, and at home against Wisconsin.

Sunday was a glimpse at what could be when Stauskas, LeVert and Robinson all perform at the top of their games. It’s a team that can play the top-ranked Wildcats until the final possession, hand the Badgers their first loss at home this season and down a state rival in the most anticipated home game of the season.

“We’re a team that likes when other people succeed,” LeVert said. “We really love each other out there. So when we see one guy’s got it going, we just try to get him the ball as much as possible.”

Unselfish and sharing the load is how the sophomore trio has set the Wolverines up for a chance to control their own destiny and take home the conference title.