STATE COLLEGE — They didn’t know it yet, but the Wolverines were champions.

No. 13 Michigan held on for dear life against the last-place team in the Big Ten, topping Penn State, 71-65, on Sunday afternoon. Its task accomplished, the team turned its eyes to East Lansing, where Michigan State was set to tip off with Ohio State on senior day at the Breslin Center.

Hours after the Wolverines defeated the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes prevailed over the Spartans, 72-70. The result? A three-way tie for the conference title, and Michigan’s first share of the Big Ten Championship since 1986.

Michigan coach John Beilein and his players were hesitant to talk about the possibility of a league title after besting Penn State, since it was out of their control at that point. But they knew what was at stake.

“Our kids will value this win very much,” Beilein said. “It puts us in position to be in position, if the right breaks go our way, (to win) a share of the Big Ten Championship, which is something that’s very important at the University of Michigan.”

The Wolverines have to feel lucky they were even in that position, after nearly blowing a lead that reached 19 points in the second half. The Nittany Lions made a desperate charge on their senior day, capitalizing on Michigan’s sloppiness to go on a late 13-0 run, and nearly erasing the deficit in the process.

Freshman point guard Trey Burke, who led his team with 19 points, seemed to regain control for Michigan (13-5 Big Ten, 23-8 overall) with a four-point play to push the lead back to 10 points with 4:39 left, but Penn State (4-14, 12-19) answered with a four-point play of its own, courtesy of Trey Lewis. Jermaine Marshall, who spurred the Nittany Lion surge and finished with 27 points to lead all scorers, made a jumper with 2:38 left and cut the score to 62-58.

“When you go up by 20 with about 10 minutes to go, that’s a tough position to be in, because you’re not going to be as aggressive on offense,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “You want to run some clock and they’re going to turn it up aggressively. … I’m just proud of the way we fought back after they cut it down.”

But Penn State would get no closer. Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a short jumper near the left elbow to extend the lead back to six points with 41 seconds left and then grabbed the rebound when Marshall missed the next time down the floor.

The Wolverines made enough free throws to seal the game from there.

It’s somewhat shocking the game got as close as it did. Penn State started out hot on Sunday, making its first three 3-pointers and leading the rebounding battle, 9-2, by the first media timeout of the game. But Michigan quickly responded and took control of the game, as a Hardaway 3-pointer with 10:37 left in the first half erased the last lead the Nittany Lions would have.

Following his 25-point, 11-rebound performance at Illinois on Thursday, Hardaway continued to show signs that he had broken out of his slump. Against Penn State, he made three of his first four attempts from deep and finished with 13 points on the day.

“He’s progressing every single day,” said senior guard Stu Douglass. “He had that turnover toward the end of the game, then he came back and hit that big shot. It didn’t faze him. … He’s not letting his offense dictate the rest of his game, which is good.”

That 3-pointer began a 23-5 run for the Wolverines, who clamped down on defense.

With Hardaway Jr. and Burke out of the game, Michigan went to a trapping 2-3 zone and promptly forced two turnovers, each punctuated by a basket from Douglass.

Michigan also got a key contribution from sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz, who led all scorers with 12 points in the first half and had a couple key baskets after the break. Smotrycz’s driving layup with 14:42 left in the game put the Wolverines back up by 16 points, and his 3-pointer two minutes later gave his team its largest lead of the day at 54-35.

That’s when the Nittany Lions made their run. Though star guard Tim Frazier shot just 4-for-16 on the afternoon, Marshall was there for key baskets. But Michigan had enough poise to stay on top.

Upon returning to Ann Arbor, the Wolverines found out their reward for doing so.

“You do go into it (knowing the stakes), and we talked a lot about it — this is what champions do on this day,” Beilein said. “They play with poise, they play with confidence, they do the little things.

“We certainly weren’t perfect today, but we did a lot of things we needed to do to win this game.”

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