It didn’t go entirely as planned, but the Michigan basketball team left Minneapolis with its 18th win of the season late Wednesday night. The Wolverines looked strong at points — nailing 14 3s on a 67.3 eFG%, leading by as much as 19 and passing 80 points — but also showed many of the glaring holes they showed in blowout losses last week.
The defense collapsed, allowing Minnesota to score 1.09 points per possession (the Golden Gophers average just 0.95 per possession in Big Ten play) and pull within two late in the second half, while Michigan’s offense missed plenty of opportunities to close it out, coughing up seven turnovers in the second half.
Regardless, the Wolverines (8-4 Big Ten, 18-7 overall) kept their postseason hopes alive and picked up their fourth Big Ten road win. Here are our five key plays from the game.
1) Derrick Walton starts hot
The player of the game was undoubtedly junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. , who had a career-high 26 points to go with eight rebounds and seven assists. The most bulk of those points came in the first half, when Walton shot 5-0f-6 from 3-point range and entered the break with 19 points.
“He responded to the games and he responded to some strong coaching the last couple games, too,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “He’s got more responsibilities. … He’s got to be able to do more and hang in there. And that was huge for him. All those 3s were nice, (but) I loved his finish down the right lane.”
Walton’s 26 are not only a career-high, but show a marked improvement from last week, when he combined for just 18 points on 6-of-20 shooting against Indiana and Michigan State. The junior said after the game that he suppressed his struggles, knowing his play moving forward is what matter the most.
“You’re not going to shoot the ball great every night,” Walton said. “There’s only a couple people in this world that can shoot the ball at the clip they want to every single night. But you just can’t let that affect you. Tonight, I kind of threw away the last two games (when) I didn’t shoot too well.
“Tonight was a fresh start for me, it felt like a whole new season. Let the past go.”
2) Derrick’s dimes slow Gopher run
In addition to scoring, Walton also picked up seven assists, more than he had in the previous two games combined.
The reason that Michigan was able to maintain a big lead for most of the second half was that Walton answered the bell the first two times Minnesota cut the lead to 11 with pinpoint assists to junior forward Mark Donnal and sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
“I’m equally excited whenever somebody makes a play,” Walton said. “I was just trying to get the offense flowing.”
Michigan’s offense sputtered and stalled at several points throughout the game in similar fashion to previous losses, but Walton orchestrated baskets for his teammates, minimizing the Wolverines’ scoring droughts.
3) Wolverines lose 19-point lead
Of course, Minnesota’s chipping at the 19-point lead early in the second only foreshadowed what was to come later in the half.
Michigan continued to struggle on defense, but empty possessions and turnovers were the catalyst for Minnesota’s comeback run. The Wolverines allowed a 19-4 run down the stretch and nearly gave away the lead in the process. Three turnovers and missed bunnies on offense turned what had been a cakewalk into a nail-biter in a matter of minutes.
“Those turnovers were really huge,” Beilein said. “That 19-(point) lead isn’t going to stay there. They’re not gonna quit. They’re too quick, and they can score points. … All of a sudden, that lead went from 10 or 12 to two or four like this.”
An optimistic Michigan fan might remember Wednesday’s game for the first 33 minutes, which saw the Wolverines build a huge lead with hot shooting and stingy perimeter defense, but it’s hard to ignore how quickly and substantially they fell off for the rest of the game.
4) Duncan Robinson answers the call
With its lead dwindling and the Williams Arena crowd waking up quickly and loudly, Michigan was in desperate need of a basket. And though he entered the game just 14 for his last 47 on 3-point attempts, redshirt sophomore Duncan Robinson was the man for the job.
The forward, once among the nation’s best 3-point shooters, knocked down his catch-and-shoot look with just over three minutes left to keep the Wolverines in control.
“That’s what shooters do,” Beilein said. “They’ve got to have this mindset, that this next shot is going in. Every time I miss one my mindset is that the odds are higher of the next one going in.”
Robinson ended the game with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc after knocking down a combined two of 13 attempts in his previous three games. If the action looks familiar, it looks quite a bit like some baseline screening action that Michigan State runs and the Wolverines used a similar set on multiple possessions down the stretch.
5) Abdur-Rahkman chases down one last scare
Even after Robinson’s 3, the Golden Gophers were every bit in the contest. And with Walton struggling to get open looks, the game pulled to 74-72, and Beilein called a timeout. The coach knew his team’s season could be on the line, and that they needed a spark on the very next play.
“I was trying to give them confidence, ‘We’re going to win this game and we’re going to execute this play,’ ” Beilein said. “We’ve got to get a guy in the lane to play ball.”
The play almost went awry as Zak Irvin lost the ball dribbling into traffic, but Abdur-Rahkman seized his rare opportunity to play hero. He grabbed the ball on the wing and made a hard baseline drive before squaring up the defender — a move John Beilein said they worked on in shootaround earlier — and finishing through contact.
The sophomore scored 13 points in the second half and five in the final 1:15, but it was his hustle play to chase down a would-be fastbreak layup and tip the ball off of the Gophers.
And though it was Walton’s game, the junior was more than happy to share the spotlight in the game’s final moments, provided that it resulted in another Big Ten win.
“It’s all about surviving, man,” Walton said.”That’s pretty much what it boils down to.”