Bogged down by a sloppy start against an upstart opponent, the Michigan men’s basketball team found itself tied with Detroit, 52-52, with just five minutes to play.
The Titans had just chipped away a nine-point Wolverine lead on the back of Juwan Howard Jr. — son of Michigan great and Fab Five member Juwan Howard — and were in position to make a late push for an upset.
But the Wolverines simply wouldn’t let it happen.
Michigan’s “big three” — junior guard Caris LeVert, sophomore forward Zak Irvin and sophomore guard Derrick Walton Jr. — put up 16 of Michigan’s final 19 points down the stretch to put away Detroit, 71-62.
LeVert led Michigan (3-0) with 21 points, nine rebounds and three assists, and Howard led all scorers with 24 points.
Coming off a sluggish start in the first half, LeVert and company made their presence felt after the break behind 17 second-half points from the junior captain, who scored 10 straight to give Michigan a 43-34 lead and all the momentum.
“I got an easy layup in transition, and I felt my rhythm coming back a little bit,” LeVert said. “I took it upon myself to be a little more aggressive. The coaches put the ball in my hands and had a great deal of confidence in me. I just wanted to come through for the team.”
The Wolverine run started when Irvin and redshirt freshman forward Mark Donnal forced a turnover on a trap behind the arc, and while Irvin missed the transition 3-pointer, the increased energy on defense made a noticeable difference.
Donnal added a block on the next Detroit possession, and LeVert took a steal coast-to-coast for a lay-in two minutes later to give the Wolverines a 35-34 lead that they would relinquish only momentarily on Howard’s and-1 layup to tie the game.
Over the course of LeVert’s takeover, the Michigan defense held Detroit without a point for six minutes.
“That was something definitely, at halftime, that was an adjustment we wanted to make,” Irvin said. “Just heat ‘em up a little bit. When our defense turns into our offense, we’re pretty good.”
In the first half, though, Michigan showed no reason to believe an offensive outburst was coming.
The Wolverines started slowly and didn’t break out of it until the half’s final minutes, ultimately shooting just 10-for-29 from the floor and 3-for-12 on 3-pointers in the first half. Still, midway through the frame, they found themselves up by a bucket despite their sloppy play.
Even Irvin, usually a sure-handed shooter, wasn’t able to get going initially, starting 1-for-8 from the field and 0-for-3 from deep.
“We really just weren’t making shots,” Irvin said. “We got sped up a little bit with the way they were playing defensively.
“We figured we were going to see that — pressuring the ball a lot, (trying to) take away our offense. We’ve just to stay poised and stay in the flow of our game and not get sped up.”
Irvin sank two triples to give the Wolverines a lead late in the first, but a put-back jumper at the buzzer by Detroit guard Anton Wilson sent the Titans into the break up a point, 28-27.
Riding some carry-over momentum, the Titans came out firing the second frame, putting up six points in the first minute-and-a-half. But once Michigan turned up its defensive intensity and LeVert got going, the Titans had to rely on Howard to keep them in it.
And for a while, he did, but the Wolverines quieted the Detroit comeback with a decisive 11-point run on the shoulders of their big three.
LeVert, Irvin and Walton combined for 45 of the team’s 71 total points.
After his slow start, Irvin finished with 18 points on 4-for-10 shooting from three, while Walton posted six boards to accompany his 16 points.
But ultimately, it was LeVert’s takeover that swung the game for Michigan.
“He’s one of those guys that’s multi-dimensional,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He’s so quick and he can get into the paint. … That was big for us.”