Ann Arbor — Down the stretch of the conference season last year, Michigan had a Big Ten title in its sights, but dropped a crucial game at Penn State, which factored into the Wolverines finishing back in the final standings.
It was a memorable win for the Nittany Lions but a forgettable loss for the Wolverines, with Penn State students rushing the court in the aftermath.
Michigan wanted to avert a repeat performance and stay among the unbeaten teams in the conference.
Mission accomplished for the Wolverines, who held off a second-half surge and took care of the Nittany Lions, 80-67, on Tuesday night at Crisler Center, for their sixth straight win.
Nik Stauskas had 21 points, six rebounds and five assists. Freshman Derrick Walton Jr. added a season-high 16 points and Glenn Robinson III 15 points and five rebounds.
U-M (12-4, 4-0 Big Ten) remained in a first-place tie with Michigan State and gets its biggest test of the conference season on Saturday at No. 3 Wisconsin, which fell out of a first-place tie with a loss Tuesday night at Indiana.
“We know we’re going to have big stretches — the Big Ten has some of the best teams in the country,” Stauskas said. “We like to take it one (game) at a time and we’re happy we’re 4-0 right now but won’t get too excited about that.”
With a 40-33 halftime lead, Stauskas said the disappointing loss last season was a topic among the players in the locker room.
“We talked about that at halftime, up seven or eight, which is what it was last year,” Stauskas said. “We made that note to Derrick and Zak (Irvin), the freshmen, saying we were in that same position last year and ended up losing, so we couldn’t let down.”
Penn State (9-9, 0-5) opened the second half with an 8-3 spurt, with a pair of baskets by Tim Frazier (17 points). The Nittany Lions started 7-of-10 from the field in the second half and were within 50-47 before Michigan answered, using a 9-0 run to boost its lead to 12 with 12:07 left.
Another 7-2 spurt made it a 16-point lead but Penn State rallied behind D.J. Newbill (17 points), who scored 11 of the Nittany Lions’ next 14 points.
But the Wolverines answered Newbill’s onslaught behind Stauskas and Walton, who had two baskets each during the stretch.
Penn State closed to 72-64 with 5:07 left, but Jon Horford hit a free throw and Stauskas a layin and the Nittany Lions never got any closer.
“I’m pleased with the way we defended in the last seven to eight minutes,” coach John Beilein said. “We were able to switch a matchup and put Glenn on Newbill and he did a wonderful job on him — and Jon Horford got rebounds.”
It was another workmanlike performance for Michigan, which beat four teams expected to finish in the second or lower tier of the conference standings.
Stauskas kept U-M in the game in the second half with 13 points, showing his all-around game with nifty passes in traffic and on the pick-and-roll.
“He has that great combination that rare people have that can shoot. He just can’t shoot — he can really shoot. Now you can drive as well and you can pass,” Beilein said of Stauskas. “If you look at his assist numbers — he had a five (and no turnovers) — he’s showing he can really play the guard position because of his height, his shooting, his feel. It’s really been good for us.
Penn State, coming off a pair of three-point losses after leading in the second half, didn’t have an answer for Michigan’s offensive efficiency and passing game, which resulted in 18 assists on 28 field goals.
“I’m proud of my guys for competing, but it’s just in spurts. It’s not for 40 minutes and we’re young,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “We have sophomores and freshmen out there.
“I’m optimistic; I think our team is a lot better than it’s been in the last couple of years. The record doesn’t show it, but hopefully we don’t lose our confidence and keep coming back to work to try to get better.”