STATE COLLEGE –
The experts called for it.
ESPN analyst Tom Brennan predicted it.
The Nittany Lions played like they wanted it.
And after a banner week for the Wolverines in which they defeated then No. 11 Michigan State and then No. 23 Wisconsin and earned a top-25 ranking, this Michigan team seemed set up for it – an upset.
Entering last night’s contest at the Bryce Jordan Center, the Wolverines – who were 1-2 on the road in conference play – needed to make the statement that they could do what was necessary to win Big Ten games on the road.
But excluding junior Dion Harris’s 11-point first-half effort, Michigan looked like it wasn’t ready for the increased scrutiny.
The Nittany Lions came out the aggressors from the opening tip.
They drove to the basket, and the Wolverines just watched them go by.
Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley found easy paths to the basket, and the Michigan defenders were always a step slower.
Playing an extended 2-3 zone, the Nittany Lions held Michigan to four points in the first five minutes. The Wolverines couldn’t find an open look and lacked any offensive flow, while Penn State hustled after the loose balls. The Nittany Lions grabbed 10 defensive rebounds and held the Wolverines to just four boards on the offensive glass.
And five minutes into the game, it looked like the dreaded “upset” would strike sooner than Michigan would have liked.
But then the Wolverines woke up.
Coming out of the first media timeout, Michigan turned up the intensity to match that of the Nittany Lions, and it regained the form of a team ranked 21st in the nation.
The Wolverines pushed the ball. They prevented Penn State from setting up in its zone and slowing down the pace of the game. By looking upcourt, Michigan quickly tired out a Nittany Lions team that goes just seven players deep.
Possession after possession, the Wolverines grabbed a defensive rebound, made an outlet pass to Daniel Horton and converted a wide open 3-pointer, courtesy of Ron Coleman or Harris. Those open looks helped to establish a little breathing room for the Wolverines, with Harris hitting clutch shots late in the half to maintain the Michigan lead.
After having early success in the paint, the Nittany Lions couldn’t find the easy lay-ups in the lane that had been there at the game’s outset. The Michigan players stepped in and contested shots.
When Chris Hunter entered the game four minutes in, he brought defensive effort that sparked the Wolverines. On Penn State’s first possession with Hunter on the court, Travis Parker turned to loft a hook shot toward the basket. Hunter rose and swatted it out of bounds.
With all the hype surrounding this Michigan squad, the Wolverines needed to make a statement.
Following a 2-0 week against a pair of top-25 teams, whispers spread about the chance that this team had to hoist the first conference championship banner to Crisler Arena’s rafters since 1986.
But in the impressive Big Ten, the Wolverines had to show that they could play like a championship team away from Crisler’s accommodating atmosphere.
Early last night, I thought this team wasn’t ready to make that step.
At halftime, the Wolverines held just a two-point lead, and Harris was the lone Michigan player in double figures. Penn State was hanging with a team that was more talented, deeper and taller.
But give Michigan credit.
The start wasn’t what the Wolverines envisioned when they stepped onto the court for the pregame shoot-around. And neither was the finish. But no matter how you rate the quality of Michigan’s play, the fact remains that the team survived.
It didn’t roll over when Penn State jumped ahead early. Instead, it adjusted.
Last night, the Nittany Lions had a chance to knock off the Wolverines and put a damper on their Big Ten title hopes. Before the game, the 6,509 fans in the arena believed in the possibility that, 40 minutes later, Penn State would walk off the court with a monumental victory.
In a Big Ten with the top as crowded as it is, the Wolverines just need to survive and pull out wins, at home and on the road.
With the win last night, the Wolverines ignored Tom Brennan’s prediction, overcame Penn State’s grit and kept their Big Ten title hopes alive.
– Kevin Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.