STATE COLLEGE — Blitzkrieg. Robbery. Escape. Whatever it is that best explains the Michigan men’s basketball team’s 38-13 run in the final 12 minutes yesterday to pull out a win at Penn State, the body language on both teams afterward illustrated the total shock brought on by that furious stretch.
I haven’t seen the Wolverines that ecstatic or overwhelmed after any of their seven other victories this season. Sure, the players were relieved and proud after the win over then-No. 15 Ohio State this past Sunday. But they, without a doubt, deserved that victory.
In Michigan’s locker room after last night’s 64-55 win over the Nittany Lions, players were grinning from ear to ear, yelling, joking, laughing. A few were in hysterics. The Wolverines didn’t steal one from Penn State — they put their hands in the cookie jar, then smashed it over the Nittany Lions’ heads.
Watching Penn State guard Chris Babb in the postgame press conference — head down, jaw dropped open — was like watching a little boy being handed a bouquet of balloons by a clown, only to see the clown take out a needle and pop every single one before the kid could thank him.
Then, picture seven of the clown’s friends in the background going nuts with each pop.
Michigan can thank Laval Lucas-Perry for deflating Penn State’s NCAA Tournament hopes and thus keeping the Wolverines’ chances alive. The redshirt sophomore guard nailed four triples in just over five minutes late in the game. What was a seven-point deficit turned into an eight-point lead in the blink of an eye. For the third time in the past two seasons (at Indiana and Minnesota last year), Lucas-Perry suddenly caught fire to help steal a much-needed road victory.
“When I made that third three I was like ‘I got to shoot it again,’ ” Lucas-Perry said of the shot that gave Michigan the lead for good with three minutes left. “I needed it. I just hung my shot more after I made those threes.”
After halftime, there weren’t any schematic changes that helped Michigan shut out Penn State’s superstar guard Talor Battle (0-5 on field goals, no points in the second half), nor any adjustments that led to Michigan drilling seven of their final 10 threes after missing its first 13. In fact, Michigan coach John Beilein didn’t even give a speech between halves.
“It can be something as simple as a shot, a steal, a dunk,” sophomore Zach Novak said. “In the first half, we were right there but we just shot atrociously. We come out in the second half, the first shot goes down, and we just get confidence from that.”
What turned things around last night was as simple and cliché as it is frustrating: the Wolverines just got hot at the last possible moment they could have afforded to.
When Michigan was getting thrashed in the first half, Battle said he heard Beilein yelling at his players to ‘just get to the half.’ The Nittany Lions were shooting 54 percent and forcing a litany of turnovers with just a straight man-to-man defense. It was arguably the worst half Michigan had played all season.
Contrast that with those last 12 minutes, and it’s clear this Wolverine team will induce heart attacks for the rest of the season (just like last year). And given this team’s streaky reputation, I’m not even sure the coaches and players know what to expect from themselves night in and night out.
What last night’s win proves is beyond the “live and die by the three” mantra that has been bludgeoned into our heads from the moment Beilein was hired.
This team needs a third scorer. Anybody. Anytime. In any game. Harris and Sims will continue to score half this team’s points. And because Michigan has no other offensively skilled postmen or aggressive slashers, the Wolverines’ tournament hopes — however slim they still are — will hinge on how often someone else can chip in three or four triples to keep defenses honest (and hesitant to throw extra defenders at Harris and Sims).
We’re long past the point of expecting one player to assume that role, and the team understands that. Lucas-Perry had not hit a shot in four of his past six games entering Thursday. Novak (eight points yesterday) has just four games with four-plus field goals this season. Stu Douglass has shown marked improvement at the point since taking the starting job Dec. 19, but was held to one basket last night.
Between those three, Michigan will need some respectable combination of perimeter offense. Beilein said he doesn’t care who gets hot as long as someone does. Entering last night, the Wolverines’ RPI ranking was 176. They now have just one true road win this season, and still have major problems with interior defense. Looking toward March Madness, they are absolutely on the outside looking in at the moment.
But if yesterday was any indication, people should probably hold off on an obituary.