Ann Arbor — Everything comes in threes, even for Michigan.
After ending a five-game skid to Michigan State and a six-game skid at Indiana over the past two games, the Wolverines were aiming to end a five-game losing streak to No. 11 Wisconsin on Thursday night.
Michigan overcame an impressive performance by Ethan Happ and took advantage of a Bronson Koenig-less Badgers team to come away with a resume-boosting, 64-58 win at Crisler Center.
Moritz Wagner scored 21 to lead Michigan (17-9, 7-6 Big Ten), which won its third straight. Zak Irvin snapped out of his four-game slump with 18 points and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 12.
Happ finished with 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting before fouling out with 36.9 seconds left for Wisconsin (21-5, 10-3).
“We haven't been on the left side of the column against those guys too often, so it's a great feeling,” senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “I know coach (John Beilein) is ecstatic and more so our guys are overwhelmed with how much this game meant to us.”
After it trailed 31-30 at halftime, Michigan’s deficit quickly grew as Wisconsin opened the second half on a 7-0 run. D’Mitrik Trice, who started as Koenig nursed a leg injury, came up with a steal and fast-break layup, Zak Showalter drained a 3-pointer and Happ backed Wagner down for an easy hook to give the Badgers a 38-30 advantage with 18:39 left and create a sense the game was starting to get away from Michigan.
Abdur-Rahkman ended the run with a jumper and the Wolverines buckled down, answering with six straight points to cut it to 38-36 three minutes later. Irvin added two free throws and Walton came up with a steal that led to a Wagner fast-break layup.
Michigan coach talks about his team's performance in Thursday's 64-58 win. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
“I think that our guys got their back to the wall again and knew we were in trouble,” Beilein said. “Derrick Walton is in the huddle shouting at people, 'We got to get stops.' That's not typical Derrick Walton. These guys know when you're playing a Top 25 team home or away, if it's on the road it's worth two wins. If we win at home it might be worth a game and a half as far as if you're going to build on your resume right now.
“(Wisconsin is) going to continue to win, but I felt a sense of urgency by this team once we got down by eight.”
From there, Michigan’s defense stiffened and the Wolverines used a 7-2 spurt with five points from Irvin — a banked in 3-pointer late in the shot clock and mid-range jumper — and two Walton free throws to go on top, 45-44, at the 11:01 mark.
Michigan added some much-needed breathing room, rattling off nine straight points to pull ahead 54-47 with 7:15 remaining. Abdur-Rahkman scored six straight on a jumper and four-point play before Irvin capped it with a 3-pointer to send the Crisler Center crowd into a frenzy. Michigan never trailed the rest of the way.
After Happ put on a one-man show in the first half with 18 points, the Wolverines made sure there wasn’t an encore and took him out the game offensively by using an array of double teams.
"We were just trying to mix it up a little bit,” Wagner said. “We know he's a good player and he's going to make good plays, but you have to try to mix stuff so you don't give him one thing that he focuses on and does it every time. I think we did a pretty good job of it even though we still had a lot of individual mistakes."
Sophomore center talks about adjustments team made to shut down Ethan Happ in the second half of Thursday's 64-58 win. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Wisconsin cut it to six twice in the final 3:14, but Wagner provided the dagger with a 3-pointer from the wing to give Michigan a 63-54 cushion with 1:09 to go.
The Wolverines had trouble icing the game after Walton and Duncan Robinson each missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and a mad scramble led to a Nigel Hayes tip-in to make it 63-58 with nine seconds left.
But Irvin provided the final margin by splitting two free throws with 7.3 seconds left, and Wisconsin’s desperation 3-pointer was off the mark in the final seconds.
"As hairy as the last couple minutes of that game was, especially the last 30 seconds, I'm so glad we weren't up just by one, two or three like we've been here and at their place a couple times to lose the game,” Beilein said. “Our kids have battled. We battled when we had to. Wisconsin came out of halftime with precision and we did not and I thought it was going to cost us but we got a good old bank shot from Zak at the shot clock that really changed his world a little bit for what he's going through the last couple weeks and changed us, as well as the four-pointer from Muhammad and all of a sudden the eight-point lead was gone.
“It was just a great effort by our kids, just find a way to win without a lot of things not necessarily working well. …Found a way to win anyhow and those are the sweetest ones."
While Wisconsin struggled to find a rhythm and looked disjointed on offense without Koenig, Michigan raced out to an 8-2 lead with 16:37 left in first half. Wagner hit a layup and a 3-pointer from atop the key and Irvin split two free throws and had a driving layup.
Wisconsin started to find its footing and used an 11-4 run to take its first lead, 13-12, at the 11:39 mark. Trice hit a 3-pointer from the wing during the spurt, Happ made consecutive baskets on a hook and offensive putback, and Khalil Iverson (10 points) capped it with a two-handed dunk.
Wisconsin’s lead was short-lived as Irvin knocked down a deep jumper, Robinson hit two 3-pointers and Wagner drained a deep ball to put Michigan back on top, 21-15, with 8:52 remaining in the half.
From that point on, Happ took over. He scored six straight points to even it at 21 and went on another tear to give the Badgers a four-point lead before Walton slowed his roll with a 3-pointer and pulled Michigan within 31-30 at the break.
"You don't want to say you're peaking at the right time but it's not a bad time to be peaking,” Walton said. “The most important basketball is right now and the stakes are a lot higher…Guys are playing with more passion and it's showing on the court."