If Michigan (13-4, 3-1 B1G) moves onto bigger and better things this season, the Wolverines will look back to tonight as the turning point, as they upended #3 Maryland 70-67 in a nailbiter in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines came into tonight's contest 2-1 in conference play (12-4 overall) with two impressive wins and a loss at Purdue that was closer than the score tells. Still, it was imperative that Michigan go at least 1-2 through an @Purdue / Maryland / @Iowa stretch before the schedule eases up (Minnesota, @Nebraska, Rutgers, Penn State in NYC -- all of which U-M has a 61% or greater win probability for according to KenPom -- come next).
Without Caris LeVert, that would be a tall task.
The Maize Rage was ready for an ESPN primetime game at tip off -- the rest of Crisler Center, not so much. Michigan's athletic department has sacrificed a much-needed student section expansion to preserve the availability of the big-money lower bowl seats and it showed tonight.
Regardless, there was plenty to shout about through the first stanza. Maryland turnovers (nine in the first) and Melo Trimble's early foul trouble allowed Michigan to keep the Terrapins at arm's length for nearly the entire half while Duncan Robinson just couldn't miss (12 points, 4-5 from three). Zak Irvin chipped in with 13 of his own but the defining sequence of the half came in the final minute when Mark Donnal, Michigan's burgeoning forward, threw down two emphatic blocks and put back an Irvin miss as time expired. The Wolverines went into half leading 37-29.
Michigan opened up a lead that got as large as thirteen to start the second, capped by Derrick Walton's electrifying four-point play. Shortly after, trouble set in. This one had some startling parallels to the Purdue game in West Lafayette last week as we drew closer to the end. Maryland went inside to uber-recruit Diamond Stone (22P, 11R) over and over to great success, just as Purdue did with their imposing bigs.
All of Maryland's forwards had strong nights in fact, with Robert Carter, Jr. and Jake Layman both scoring in double figures as well. Liken the Purdue game, Michigan traded "hards" for "easys" like John Beilein said last Thursday, meaning jumpshots for layups, as we watched that 13-point lead totally evaporate. The Wolverines were excruciatingly being bled out inside.
However, this wouldn't end like the Purdue game.
Michigan badly needed a renaissance from Zak Irvin to compete in the Big Ten. Tonight, we saw it with him finishing with 22 points. None of them bigger than a late three to keep Michigan ahead by eight.
But like they did all night, Maryland answered with a three of their own from Rasheed Sulaimon. A Donnal foul put Diamond Stone on the line with 40 seconds to go. Of course, he hit them both and Maryland got the lead down to two but that was as close as they would get. Donnal hit the front end of a one-and-one and with that Michigan would earn a pivotal victory.
John Beilein's team may be less than a fourth of the way through conference play, but man, does 3-1 feel good. Michigan goes to Carver-Hawkeye this Sunday for a very difficult matchup with Iowa but that game almost has a "house money" feel after tonight's win.
The Wolverines get a friendly stretch coming after that one until the Spartans come to Ann Arbor on February 6th. That should allow the team to build some momentum and get LeVert healthy.