It was a battle of wills, a game between two rivals, with nothing but pure heart deciding the outcome.
It was a contest to see if Michigan was tough enough to take the next step, to truly contend for a Big Ten title.
It was a physical clash, with Ohio State — the king of the conference — and its star big man Jared Sullinger determined to wear down the Wolverines, determined to make them buckle on a home floor they’ve protected all season long.
Through it all, Jordan Morgan stood tall.
“We said before the game, ‘It’s going to be ugly,’ ” the redshirt sophomore forward said. “(We wanted to) make it ugly. We wanted to bring the hammer.”
At 6-foot-8 and a chiseled 250 pounds, Morgan is, without question, the biggest and strongest member of the No. 17 Michigan men’s basketball team. That means he’s also the player that Michigan coach John Beilein must depend on to bring physicality to the court every single game — Beilein doesn’t have anyone else, especially with injured sophomore forward Jon Horford relegated to the bench.
And Morgan was especially needed against No. 6 Ohio State. Most Big Ten matchups are physical affairs, but it was evident early on Saturday night that the game would be especially rough-and-tumble.
But it also became clear early on that the Wolverines, so often criticized for being weak in the paint and on the boards, were ready to bring the fight to the bigger, longer and more athletic Buckeyes. Morgan led the charge.
The Detroit native served notice in the game’s opening possession. Ohio State immediately dumped the ball down low to Sullinger, a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate at forward. Sullinger has had his way with Michigan in the past, but this time, Morgan was ready, holding tough in that initial matchup and forcing a missed shot.
That was the story most of the night. Sullinger had his most ineffective performance against Michigan to date, converting on just six of 14 field-goal attempts.
And much of the time, it was Morgan and Morgan alone defending the Buckeye, working feverishly to deny him the ball and holding his ground when Sullinger tried to back him down. The Wolverines doubled him and gave help on a few occasions, especially in the second half. But Beilein said he was content to let Morgan handle him alone most of the time.
“That’s the Jordan Morgan we’ve seen flashes of, and (that) we’re starting to see more and more,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “He played like a man tonight.
“Everyone talks about Sullinger, (and) he’s a very, very good player. But I think Jordan was up to the challenge tonight.”
On the offensive end, Morgan was efficient, making five of his eight field-goal attempts.
Morgan might not ever be the type of player that can consistently score with his back to the basket in the paint, but he continues to grow as a fast-break running mate and an opportunistic finisher off misses.
In the tense second half, Morgan forced the raucous Crisler Center crowd to its feet with a pair of emphatic, one-handed fast-break slams. The first came when two minutes had elapsed after the break, and the second followed a minute later. Both came after Ohio State baskets, and both gave the momentum back to Michigan.
Morgan’s and-one with 7:25 left in the game pushed the Wolverine lead back out to seven points, and it was also huge in keeping the Buckeyes from putting together a run.
But for all his offensive and defensive prowess, the most significant aspect of Morgan’s night was his ability to stay on the court. He’s had fewer struggles with fouling this season compared to last year, but it’s still emerged at times — he had to sit for much of the second half in Michigan’s 64-49 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 29, for example.
When he picked up two quick fouls just two minutes into the second half, it appeared Morgan was headed for foul trouble again. Senior guard Stu Douglass noted that, whereas Morgan would “sulk” and have a “woe-is-me” attitude in the past, he refocused, kept his composure and played through it this time.
Morgan didn’t collect another foul the rest of the game, and even had the confidence to step into the lane and draw a key charge with just over four minutes left in the game.
“Now, he’s maturing,” Douglass said. “He’s getting to the point where he can take those bumps and still go forward. … He still came down and played tough, aggressive defense the last four minutes of the game.
“That was something he wouldn’t have done last year, and a lot of games he wouldn’t have done this year.”
Saturday night marked a key point in the development of Jordan Morgan. Freshman point guard Trey Burke, who essentially sealed the game with his two driving layups in the last 1:17, called Morgan the “best player on the floor tonight.”
Morgan’s efforts resulted in the first double-double of his career, tallying 11 points and 11 rebounds. It was a fitting achievement for what was perhaps the best all-around performance he’s had to date.
“It does (mean something),” Morgan said. “You’re happy to get (a double-double), but it makes you happy when you do it for your teammates, and you know you gave everything that you had to help everybody get this win.”