Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Michigan 74, Minnesota 69: Just enough

Looking to bounce back once again from a loss against top-notch competition, the Wolverines welcomed a struggling Minnesota squad to Ann Arbor tonight.

For most of the first half, Michigan appeared ready to deliver its third conference win by double digits. Then Carlos Morris went on one-man run, Nate Mason turned it on in the second half, and Michigan's offense struggled when Zak Irvin went quiet after an impressive first half.

Despite it all, the Wolverines did what they needed to do against a, quite frankly, very bad Minnesota team, notching a 74-69 win -- and eighth straight win at home -- to move to 14-5 (4-2) on the season.

Say what you will about the opponent -- a quality win this was not. Richard Pitino's Gophers were 6-12 heading into tonight's contest and No. 203 in the KenPom rankings.

Still, once again without the injured Caris LeVert, the Wolverines would have to take care of business. Given the string of upsets dotting the college basketball landscape of late -- particularly when you look just down the way in East Lansing -- no game is a sure thing.

The Wolverines raced out to a 22-9 lead about halfway though the first half, aided by a strong start downtown from Duncan Robinson and Irvin. The biggest surprise of the half, perhaps, was Robinson going on to miss five straight from beyond the arc after a 2-for-2 start. Yes, he is in fact not a three-point shooting automaton.

Without checking, I'd imagine that's probably that's the first time that's happened this season for Robinson. Even so, he's still shooting 53.5 percent for the season.

As Michigan started to cool down, the Gophers cut it to eight late in the half, but an Irvin triple summarily ended the brief gust of confidence that followed a Bakary Konate putback slam.

But Minnesota surged again, paced by eight straight points from Morris and a strong finish through a trio of Wolverines by big man Jordan Murphy.

Just like that, U-M carried just a 37-30 lead into the break, despite Minnesota shooting just 37 percent from the field.

Luckily for Michigan, Irvin was on like a toaster at 7 a.m. Irvin tallied 15 first-half points, the only U-M player to reach double-digits in the opening 20 minutes. Irvin splashed shots from outside and beat defenders to the rim for easy twos on several occasions, flashing the do-it-all ability we saw late last season. On top of the scoring, he led the Wolverines on the boards and in the assist department.

However, Mason picked up where Morris left off, with nine points early in the second half to keep the visitors hanging around.

Unfortunately for Michigan, its inability to stop penetration from Minnesota's guards -- stop me if you've heard that before this season -- and an inability to do much of anything offensively against a bad defense made this somewhat of a nail-biter when it shouldn't have been. Sans Irvin, Michigan's offense wasn't doing much of anything in the second half. Irvin scored two early second half buckets, then proceeded to disappear from the attack over the next six minutes or so.

And at the halfway mark of the second, Michigan led just 50-47, the wind in Minnesota's sails like a viking ship en route to plunder -- or, more conservatively, a shot at a Big Ten road win, which has to be worth a trinket or two.

Down the stretch, Minnesota proved unable to make the plays it needed, and Michigan got key triples from Aubrey Dawkins and Derrick Walton to give U-M the breathing room to coast to a win concluded by a free-throw shooting contest.

After scoring a combined 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting against Illinois and Penn State, Walton has now scored 10-plus points in four straight games, with a team-high 22 tonight. He wasn't particularly efficient tonight (5-for-13 from the field, 1-for-6 from three), but he hit big shots in the final 10 minutes when Michigan couldn't seem to buy a bucket.

So, this wasn't a particularly aesthetically pleasing 40 minutes of basketball (saying nothing of the foul-fest at the end) but a dynamic first half from Irvin and an ability to win despite a rough night from beyond the arc (29%, 9-for-31) should be enough for even the nitpickiest of fans. (Sadly, Minnesota was even worse from beyond the arc, shooting just 27 percent.)

And I think I speak for everyone when I say that the day we don't have to see shots of sad Caris LeVert on the bench will be a good one, as encouraging as Michigan's play without him has been.

Next up, Michigan heads to Lincoln to face a Nebraska squad that just upset Michigan State. Needless to say, another listless effort and the Wolverines won't be as lucky to pull out a win against Shavon Shields and Co.

Nebraska is just 12-8 on the season, but they'll carry a four-game winning streak into Saturday's contest against the Wolverines in Pinnacle Bank Arena.

That gym promises to be loud. Michigan will have to hope its play is louder.

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