MINNEAPOLIS — Michigan co-captain David Merritt is known for being a calm and reserved leader.
But minutes after Michigan’s 67-64 comeback against Minnesota on Saturday, Merritt was high-fiving teammates, pumping his fists and jumping over an ESPN camera cord like a kid playing hopscotch.
With a strong RPI (42) and strength of schedule (10), Michigan’s win in Minneapolis bolstered its case to earn an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. The win, coupled with several other bubble teams dropping key games this weekend, means the Wolverines are very likely to earn one of the tournament’s 34 at-large spots for the first time since 1998.
“I think we got a terrific team,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We’ve won a lot of games. We’ve beaten some very, very good teams. There are some great people on that committee and they’re going to look at Michigan and look at them long and hard, and I hope they chose us. We’re deserving.”
Saturday was arguably Beilein’s most important game so far at Michigan. With both Minnesota and Michigan sitting precariously on the tournament bubble, many college basketball analysts said it was a must-win game for both teams. But thanks to a resiliency and poise down the stretch that the Wolverines have rarely showed on the road, they pulled out one of the program’s biggest wins in over a decade.
Junior DeShawn Sims (24 points) and redshirt freshman Laval Lucas-Perry (career-high 19 points) led Michigan to its first road win against a top-50 RPI team. The Wolverines’ only other high-profile win away from Ann Arbor was against UCLA on a neutral court.
The victory means Michigan (9-9 Big Ten, 19-12 overall) will be the No.7 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will face No. 10 Iowa Thursday at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas argued that Michigan deserves an NCAA Tournament bid before Saturday’s game, so one win at the Big Ten Tournament will almost certainly lock up an at-large bid.
But that postseason security wasn’t easily achieved.
Minnesota (9-9, 21-9) led by three at the half and went on a 10-3 run to start the second frame. The Golden Gophers extended their lead to a dozen with 13 minutes remaining, and the crowd at Williams Arena could sense an NCAA Tournament berth for their Golden Gophers.
Somehow, the Wolverines found a way to steal a big road win in the Big Ten.
“Because we had to, in all honesty,” said fifth-year senior C.J. Lee on how Michigan pulled out the win. “We never talked about it in the huddle, we knew what was at stake the entire time.”
Added Beilein: “We were just trying to keep our composure at that point in a very great setting, that was our big thing. Our coaching staff, as much as we could, was trying to show a ‘yes face’ in the huddle. ‘Just hang in there guys, hang in there. We have to make a couple of baskets and get stops.’ “
Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said he can’t recall a time his team outrebounded the opponent (30-13), shot 55 percent from the field and lost. Under Smith, the Golden Gophers were 33-1 when leading at the half before Saturday’s game.
With its backs against the wall, Michigan was fortunate that Lucas-Perry scored in the double digits for the first time since Feb. 15. The guard hit back-to-back-to-back 3-pointers in the midst of a 28-13 Michigan run in the final 13 minutes of the game. Minnesota failed to score for almost the last five minutes.
For Harris, Lucas-Perry’s performance was a long time coming.
“We’ve kind of been on him because he hasn’t been playing his best like we expected him to play,” Harris said. “We kept saying, like, ‘One of these days is going to be your big game.’ Today, when we needed (it) the most, it was his big game.”
Lucas-Perry’s heroics allow Michigan to prepare for the Big Ten Tournament knowing the Selection Committee will look favorably on Michigan’s recent performance over the past week and a half — beat No. 19 Purdue, nearly knocked off Wisconsin and topped Minnesota.
But equally importantly, the Wolverines may have finally found a consistent third scorer all year behind Harris and Sims. Heading into postseason play, Michigan hopes Lucas-Perry can be that guy.