Michigan played one strong half and one atrocious one in West Lafayette: tonight, they once again played a strong first half, carrying a 7-point lead into the break (they led by eight at the half at Purdue).
Would the Wolverines come out sleepy and dazed after the intermission this time around? Would the final act denouement wrap up tidily, or with a funeral hearse? Like a Shakespearean drama, sometimes the plot of a college basketball season, or a game, quivers along tenuously, ultimately resolved in celebration or doom.
The Wolverines started the first act hot, racing to a 10-2 lead with the help of Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton triples. PSU slowly rallied back, retaking the lead after a hot-shooting John Johnson buried a three, giving PSU a 19-17 lead.
The late stages of the half produced some nice things for LeVert, with a jumper and a trey before picking up his second foul with six minutes left, resulting in the auto-bench for him.
Zak Irvin started feeling it, too, scoring seven straight points to give Michigan a four-point lead. Michigan was shooting a shade over 50 percent late into the half, but nine turnovers did nothing to help Michigan's offensive struggles.
Another thing that doesn't help? Missed layups. They killed Michigan in the Purdue game, and late in the half Spike Albrecht tossed an alley-oop to an unbelievably wide open Kam Chatman, who bounced it off the wrong spot of the square and out. These are just little plays that good teams don't miss.
Even so, foul troubles for DJ Newbill limited the Nittany Lions, as did Brandon Taylor, PSU's second-leading scorer, going 0-for-6 from the field.
As such, Michigan went into the break up 36-29. Would they be able to avoid a repeat of that second half from this past Saturday?
Things didn't start promisingly for either team, as LeVert and Newbill each picked up his third foul in the half's opening minutes. Then again, the best defense is having the opponent's star firmly planted on the bench. At this point, if Michigan was going to get beat, it seemed as if Johnson would need to go off again (he had 10 first half points) or some other unsung hero would.
Speaking of unsung heroes, Ricky Doyle flashed some strong play, with eight points through 25 minutes of play, including a slick right-handed jump hook to give Michigan its first 10-point lead. Once again, when Sir Arthur Conan (Ricky) Doyle plays well, Michigan plays well.
Michigan kept cruising, with Aubrey Dawkins slamming one down then burying threes on consecutive possessions. Dawkins has now come up big in two of three Big Ten contests; perhaps he, not Doyle or Donnal, will be the Freshman Difference Maker the Wolverines so badly need.
However, a Penn State run was bound to happen, and Michigan has always teetered precariously on the edge of an extended drought that would make Steinbeck's Joad family look on with empathy (that is what we in the business call hyperbole).
Sure enough, the Nittany Lions ran.
An 11-2 PSU run erased Michigan's double digit lead, as John Beilein's squad continued to turn it over. Walton committed Michigan's 15th turnover with 8:30 mark, five more than Michigan's per game average. Given Michigan's shooting from outside, they should have been leading by more, but as Jay Cutler's career in Chicago shows, gaudy numbers mean nothing when you're throwing the ball to the other team so frequently.
Fortunately for Michigan, PSU fouled Walton in the act of shooting a triple, after which he buried all three from the line, giving the maize and blue a momentary respite.
Looking to stabilize things further, Beilein threw the 1-3-1 at the Nittany Lions for the first time: and it worked. PSU turned it over on a shot clock violation, a key stop at this juncture of the game.
As great as Dawkins has been in Big Ten play, you need your stars to perform down the stretch. LeVert did just that, hitting a jumper to extend the lead to five, then answering a Shep Garner three with a late shot clock kiss off the glance after penetrating around some stifling on-ball defense.
Up 60-54 with four minutes to play, Michigan looked to close.
Once again, LeVert answered a PSU bucket with one of his own, good for his 15th and 16th points of the game. With a 6-for-8 mark from the field at this point, LeVert finally looked like the LeVert of old once again, delivering clutch bucket after clutch bucket when the offense begged for someone to take over.
Newbill, PSU's star, proved up to the challenge, too. He scored his 18th and 19th points (7-for-11 from the field to this point), to cut Michigan's lead to two with 2:52 to play. Shortly thereafter, he picked up his fourth foul (although, at this point, fouls became immaterial).
They became ever more immaterial, as Michigan launched an 8-0 run, with a breakaway Irvin dunk off of a Newbill turnover effectively shutting the door.
Following the requisite free-throw period, Michigan emerged with a 74-63 win, but, more importantly, a much-needed road win. Michigan's Big Three shot 14-for-24 from the field, with LeVert and Irvin leading the way with 18 and 17 points, respectively. Irvin also grabbed nine boards, while Walton dished six assists.
It's difficult to win while committing 15 turnovers, but Michigan found a way. Newbill scored a seemingly quiet 20, but he was the only Nittany Lion to make a huge impact, save for John Johnson's unexpected 16 points. Contain Newbill -- 20 points qualifies as containment, I suppose -- and make others beat you was the formula coming in, and Michigan executed it to a tee.
Say what you will about a road win against a team that was 0-2 in the league coming in, but this was a must-have win for a Wolverines squad that hasn't even reached the truly difficult part of the league schedule.
Michigan's stars played well and production from freshmen, Doyle and Dawkins, who pitched in big buckets to keep Michigan's head above water, are encouraging signs going forward.
Most importantly, rather than collapsing in the face of an opponent's onslaught, as they did at Purdue, Michigan answered. This is still very much a work in progress, but, for now, at least it appears to be in progress.
The road to somewhere doesn't begin with The Answer, just An Answer.