The Wolverines entered the new year looking to continue recent trends: Michigan came into tonight's matchup having won at The Barn four straight times. The young Wolverines stepped in from the subzero Minneapolis chill looking to make that five wins in a row, not to mention a winning start to the conference campaign.
Of course, Michigan would have to do it without Mitch McGary, meaning the playmaking onus would shift even more heavily onto the shoulders of Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. Robinson also picked up two monstrous blocks on the defensive end early, a clear indicator that he was ready to play.
Stauskas and Robinson picked up bucket apiece early, with Robinson's being a spectacular alley oop slam. However, Michigan was far less successful at the other end, where the Gophers picked up four offensive rebounds in the first four or five minutes of play.
At the offensive end, Michigan had multiple passes deflected in the early stages of the game, resulting in several Minnesota transition opportunities.
Minnesota built up a 15-7 as the game approached the halfway point of the first half, as the Wolverine offense looked mostly listless when not getting out in transition. The Wolverines stormed back with a 11-0 run to take a 3-point lead with 7:37 left to play in the half.
The Gophers later strormed back with a 7-0 run of their own, but Michigan answered with a 5-0 mini-run of its own, tying things at 28-all.
It was an up and down first half, and neither team shot particularly well (Michigan-40%, Minnesota-38.7%). However, Minnesota's 10 offensive rebounds --good for an offensive rebounding percentage of 52.3%-- allowed the Gophers to get second and sometimes third chances. Minnesota led just 30-28 at the half, but the Wolverines likely could not afford another half like that on the defensive boards.
Robinson pitched in a solid first half for the Wolverines (6 points, 3 blocks), but Jon Horford was the real hero for Michigan in the opening 20 minutes, pitching in the following stat line: 7 points, 7 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block. Horford won't be able to give Michigan the playmaking skill that McGary offered, but play like that will give the Wolverines a chance to win quite a few Big Ten games.
Early in the second, Robinson picked up his fourth block of the game but landed awkwardly. Robinson eventually limped to the bench and headed for the locker room, now leaving Michigan without two of its star players. With Michigan down 36-30 and the Gophers looking like the more energized squad, the game was in danger of getting out of hand.
Then, Derrick Walton hit possibly the biggest shot of his career to date, a 3-point shot from the right wing in transition to stem the Minnesota tide. Sure, over 14 minutes remained in the game at this point, but the shot was critical both for Michigan's chances in this game and for Walton's confidence as a shot taker.
Fellow freshman Zak Irvin also pulled his weight, hitting his third three of the game to make it 39-38, Minnesota; shortly thereafter, a Jordan Morgan hook shot gave Michigan its first lead since the later stages of the first half. Somehow, Michigan found a way to swing the momentum pendulum back its way sans Robinson.
Shortly thereafter, Irvin added two more triples on back-to-back possessions. Naturally, his heat check shot on the next possession clanged off of the side of the backboard; regardless, the freshman hasn't shied away from taking big shots all season.
With just over six minutes to go, the game had seen eight ties and 10 lead changes. The Wolverines would have to weather the remaining storm without Robinson, who remained on the bench ever since being shaken up earlier in the half.
The Wolverines went into the final two minutes with a tenuous 1-point lead and two true freshmen on the court. Out of a timeout, Stauskas penetrated, drew the defense's attention and dished to Horford on the block, who slammed it home, making for the Mississaugan's seventh assist of the evening.
Michigan played strong defense at the other end, and then it became the requisite free throwing shooting parade. Or so you would have thought.
The Gophers' Malik Smith hit a corner three to cut the lead to 60-57, but that's not even when things got truly dicey for the Wolverines. Nik Stauskas received the ball in the backcourt, expecting to be fouled. The foul call never came, and Stauskas appeared to lose it out of bounds.
However, after a review, the ball went back to Michigan with 21.7 seconds remaining. This time, Michigan inbounded it to Walton, who went to the line having gone 4-for-4 from the line to that point.
Walton missed both but Minnesota failed to score at the other end. Horford split a pair at the line, then Minnesota's Malik Smith was fouled while shooting a three. Smith buried all three, and Nik Stauskas then went to the line with 4.5 seconds remaining and Michigan up just one.
Stauskas calmly swished the first, then the second. Deandre Mathieu's desperation 3-point heave didn't connect, and the Wolverines escaped with a 63-60 win. I don't think anyone needs to be told how impressive any Big Ten road win is, not to mention one landed sans Mitch McGary and without Glenn Robinson for most of the second half.
After tonight's win --Michigan's fifth straight at The Barn-- Michigan moved to 9-4 (1-0) on the season. The Wolverines will now tackle a fairly manageable stretch of games (Northwestern, at Nebraska, Penn State) before heading to Madison on Jan. 18 to face the currently undefeated No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers.