Whether you're hitting the road to face the conference's best team or its worst, every road game in the Big Ten is a fight; college basketball commentators always say it's tough to win on the road because, well, it is. That's no trite, meaningless maxim: it is the law of the land in the Big Ten.
Michigan's trip to Lincoln tonight would prove to be no different.
Fortunately for John Beilein, the Wolverines came out firing, hitting six of their first eight from the field. Glenn Robinson III in particular came out hot, scoring seven quick points on a 3-of-3 start from the field.
Michigan held a 15-12 lead by the 12:00 media timeout, partially helped out by Nebraska's sloppiness (four early turnovers). As is typically the case on the road, though, Michigan would likely not be able to shoot that well for the duration of the game. When the shots would stop falling, Michigan had to find a way to score, especially in the face of the inevitable Nebraska run.
Jordan Morgan quickly overshadowed Robinson's hot start, scoring six quick points, including a nifty little hook shot and a putback after jumping about as high as I've ever seen him jump for the offensive rebound.
However, the Nebraska run came in the form of four straight three-pointers, three from Ray Gallegos and another from Walter Pitchford. The Cornhuskers then led 26-24 with under seven minutes to play in the half, and the red-clad crowd seemed to get into it for the first time all game.
Michigan managed to shut down Gallegos after the aforementioned 3-point extravaganza, and the two squads appeared ready to enter the half at 30-all--that is, until Derrick Walton buried a buzzer-beating 3-point shot from half-court, giving Michigan a 33-30 lead.
Michigan upped its lead to six early in the second half, but the defense continued to be less than stellar. Nebraska found regular success putting the ball on the floor and attacking the paint or driving and dishing to open shooters, like when Tai Webster drove and hit an open Terran Petteway in the corner, burying a triple and cutting the Michigan lead to 44-43 with 15:23 remaining.
Two more buckets gave the Huskers a 4-point lead, as the situation on the defensive end for Michigan devolved from bad to dire. Luckily, Beilein drew something up during a timeout, a something that resulted in a thunderous Robinson alley-oop dunk to end the 7-0 Nebraska run.
Later, a masterful pair of assists on consecutive possessions from Nik Stauskas to Morgan returned the lead to Michigan, 52-51, with a little over nine minutes to play. Lost in the sarcasm of the "not just a shooter" meme is the fact that Stauskas might actually be Michigan's best distributor. No, he's not a point guard, but his ability to hold the ball with defenders draped all over him, drive and then deliver a perfect pass has been the biggest development in his game since last season.
Michigan rode an 11-3 run to a 59-54 lead, powered partially by five straight Stauskas points. After a relatively quiet first half, Michigan's Mississaugan came up big down the stretch.
The lead quickly evaporated by virtue of Michigan's complete inability to defend the pick and roll (or any sort of dribble action). But, if there ever was a time to forget about past mistakes, it's in a 63-63 game with under four minutes to play. A few stops at this point meant the different between winning and losing: Could the Wolverines get those stops and avoid a fairly crushing early B1G loss?
The two teams entered the final minute tied at 69, after a GRIII steal and dunk and then two more Petteway points at the other end.
Down 70-69, Michigan had the ball with under 35 seconds to play. Walton drove to the cup--Nebraska was in a zone, by the way--and made the layup while drawing a block call. He missed the free throw, then giving Nebraska the ball with 9.3 seconds to play and Michigan up 71-70.
Needless to say, this wasn't exactly a good situation, given how Michigan had defended--rather, not defended--the ball screen all game.
The Cornhuskers gave it to Petteway, as expected, who drove around the ball screen and into the paint, where a lobbed a shot that was way too strong. After a couple of harrowing Nebraska putback attempts later, the clock had run out and the score still read 71-70, Michigan.
It wasn't pretty and it wasn't easy but Michigan won, and that's all that counts. Such is life on the road in the Big Ten: win by 40 or by a thread, it's all the same.
With that said, while Mitch McGary's absence has dominated the fanbase's thoughts since the news hit, Michigan's inability to defend seems to be a far bigger roadblock to the Wolverines' success. The Wolverines were absolutely hapless on the defensive end tonight; that is not an effort that is going to win too many other Big Ten games this season.
But, fortunately for the Wolverines, the entire starting five came to play on the offensive end, including 15 huge points from Jordan Morgan, who was the beneficiary of some tremendous passes from Michigan's guards.
Additionally, Glenn Robinson III put together yet another brilliant performance, scoring 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Since the Arizona game on Dec. 14, Robinson's game has taken quite the significant leap forward in just about every aspect, which is obviously excellent news for a McGary-less Michigan squad as it forges on into the rest of the B1G schedule.
With the victory, the Wolverines moved to 11-4 (3-0) on the season. They return to the Crisler Center on Tuesday, where they'll meet the Penn State Nittany Lions.