Piscataway, N.J. — Michigan coach John Beilein didn't have a big inspirational speech to prepare the Wolverines for their first game without leading scorer Caris LeVert, who was lost for the season because of a complete fracture in his left foot.
Beilein, who in 2009 used the Spanish phrase "Queme los barcos" — translated as "Burn the boats" — to get his team to believe there was no turning back, just told the Wolverines they needed to go out and play.
With seemingly nothing to lose, Michigan played with a disjointed roster and shot poorly from the field, but emerged with a 54-50 victory at Rutgers on Tuesday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
It's the first-ever Big Ten meeting between the schools; Michigan (12-7, 5-2 Big Ten) has won all six meetings.
"You have a lot of coaches say, 'You can win this game.' I don't know if (any of our players) looked at any game going forward and said we had a chance," coach John Beilein said. "It's natural — they're young. There's their leader and he's down and you have to convince them and now it gives credence that you can do things.
"You can get blown out as well. You can win again; you just have to stay together and play smart basketball."
In the final minutes, Michigan played well enough to win, getting stellar play from sophomore Derrick Walton Jr., who had 10 of his 12 points in the second half, including four critical free throws in the final minute. Freshman Aubrey Dawkins, who started for LeVert, added 11 points.
UM trailed, 42-39, before Walton hits back-to-back 3-pointers to tie it and give the Wolverines the lead for good with 4:10 remaining.
"I just try to do what the team needs," said Walton, who added seven rebounds. "It so happened that I made some big shots down the stretch but there are three or four other guys in that locker room who can make the same play. It just so happened that tonight was my night."
Coach John Beilein and forward Max Bielfeldt talk about the boost Michigan's 50-54 victory gave the team.
Michigan clung to a 48-44 lead until the final minute but the Scarlet Knights (10-10, 2-5) were forced to foul and Walton hit the free throws to push the lead to eight. Zak Irvin (10 points) hit another pair of free throws with 24 seconds left to make it 54-47, and Rutgers hit another 3-pointer just before the buzzer with the game out of reach.
Without LeVert, who didn't make the trip, the Wolverines knew they'd have to pull together to make up for his absent offense and production.
"We all knew what was going to happen and there were a lot of shots to divvy up between the guys," said senior Max Bielfeldt, who had eight points and a career-high eight rebounds. "We had to bring an energy that Caris brought. It was a really big team effort and we all brought a little piece of that.
"We went down the entire bench, so it's something I haven't seen in my time here."
The Wolverines struggled early, hitting just 5 of their first 15 shots, but with a makeshift lineup, started to gain momentum. Irvin picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the game, putting Michigan down another scorer and Beilein dug into the bench, using 11 players.
After walk-on Andrew Dakich entered — burning his redshirt opportunity — Michigan started to streak, getting a pair of free throws from Walton and a drive from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to take a 12-11 lead. That ignited an 11-5 spurt that featured a basket by seldom-used walk-on Sean Lonergan and finished with a jumper and a 3-pointer by Dawkins.
That gave the Wolverines a 19-16 advantage, before Rutgers responded with a pair of baskets by Kadeem Jack (13 points) and Greg Lewis. Myles Mack (15 points, eight rebounds) had a steal and lay-in to tie it at 22, but Bielfeldt converted a pair of free throws that gave Michigan a two-point halftime lead.
UM got off to a hot start in the second half, going on an 8-0 run after the Scarlet Knights opened with a 3-pointer. But Rutgers replied with a 15-2 spurt and took its biggest lead, 40-34, with 8:30 left.
The Wolverines stayed close, as Dawkins ended the drought with a 3-pointer and after two Rutgers free throws, Spike Albrecht got his only field goal of the game and Walton's 3-pointers put Michigan ahead, 45-42.
As more young players got into the lineup and got significant playing time, Beilein said the coaches trimmed down the playbook to ensure that the players knew what they were running.
"I love the way our kids responded from the very beginning of the game, (with) the things we had to change in order to change our game plan against Rutgers and they were very good at it," Beilein said. "We still had to make some shots and nobody shot the ball very well. Credit either defense or poor shooting."