The Michigan men’s basketball team’s first few minutes of the 2012 season went much like the Mayans predicted for the year — a catastrophe. But Trey Burke made sure the game didn’t continue in that direction.
The freshman point guard scored a career-high 27 points as the Wolverines took down visiting Minnesota, 61-56 Sunday afternoon. Burke scored 16 of those points in the second half, finding success by penetrating on the pick-and-roll against a slow Golden Gopher defense.
“Everybody on our team is looking for what is their best shot,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “And (Trey) took some great ones, and he took the ball to the basket and finished very well. His explosion, off a ball screen … it’s tough for anybody to catch him.”
But even Burke’s best performance yet couldn’t stop Minnesota (0-2 Big Ten, 12-3 overall) from giving Michigan a scare in the final minute.
Down 59-56 with 35 seconds left, Minnesota forward Rodney Williams put up a 3-pointer but found iron. Michigan redshirt sophomore center Jordan Morgan grabbed the rebound and senior guard Zack Novak made two free throws to ice the Wolverines’ second conference win.
“(The last possession) wasn’t designed for me,” Williams said. “I just happened to be open and it felt good, but it just didn’t go down.”
Michigan (2-0, 12-2) came out of the gates sloppily, committing four turnovers in the first four minutes of the game. Communication issues and errant passes put Michigan in an early 6-1 hole, but the Wolverines regrouped.
“Last year we might have not bounced back from the first four minutes,” said senior guard Stu Douglass. “Put those first four minutes and four turnovers and missed free throws, missed shots … kind of put it behind us and went forward and just stayed together. Last year I don’t think we really would have done that.”
Both teams struggled to score in the opening frame, the Golden Gophers making 30 percent of their shots while the Wolverines shot just 28 percent. But the Wolverines went on an 18-5 run to take an eight-point lead before Minnesota closed the gap in the final minutes of the opening frame. Michigan went into the half leading 23-19.
Burke was 4-for-6 in the half. He drained a 3-pointer and sank two closer jump shots on the move, sparking Michigan’s run.
The freshman finished the half with 11 points — no other Wolverine had more than three points. Burke was the only Michigan scorer to finish in double figures for the game.
In the second half, Burke’s attacks came closer to the basket. He challenged Minnesota guard Maverick Ahanmisi on the screen-and-roll and was able to convert on layups and draw fouls.
“They tried to play the perimeter and they really didn’t let us get a lot of open threes,” Burke said. “We kept taking what they gave us. Like (assistant) coach (LaVall Jordan) said, ‘Don’t make a mistake, let the defense make a mistake for you and just go off of what they give you.’ ”
Burke finished with 8-for-11 shooting, making both of his 3-point attempts and converting on nine of 11 free throws.
He shouldered the scoring load, as the Wolverines with the hot hands the last few games struggled to find the basket. Sophomore forward Tim Hardaway Jr., who scored 26 points on Thursday against Penn State, had just seven on Sunday.
And sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz, coming off three straight double-doubles, kept up his strong rebounding, but made little impact in the scoring column. He finished with two points and nine rebounds.
“You always want to take the big scorers out,” Williams said. “But once we do that, then we got to still contain the other guys and that’s something we didn’t do today.”
The Golden Gophers briefly tied Michigan in the second half, and the Wolverines kept a comfortable cushion until the final minutes.
But two straight 3-pointers from guard Julian Welch brought Minnesota to within one point with just under two minutes remaining. And after a miss from Novak, the Golden Gophers had a chance to take the lead, but air-balled as the shot clock ran down.
A jump shot from Hardaway Jr. gave Michigan a 3-point lead and they wouldn’t give it away.
Minnesota couldn’t convert on its final chance to tie the game. Michigan defied the Mayans and avoided a collapse on its first game of the new year.
“It was definitely a Big Ten battle,” said Morgan. “Big shots didn’t fall for us necessarily, but we still gutted this one out.”