UM comes in from the cold to beat Minnesota
Ann Arbor — Wait, what?
This was supposed to be a chance for Michigan to catch its breath.
After a grueling three-game stretch against the powers of the Big Ten, Minnesota at home was supposed to be no big thing.
Turns out, it almost was a very big thing, and a very big setback. Welcome to college basketball in 2016, where nothing's as it seems.
At least Michigan, despite uncharacteristically awful shooting from 3-point range, got its act together just in time to hold off Minnesota, 74-69, on Wednesday night before a far-from-packed crowd at Crisler Center.
"It's a W. It's a W," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We'll take that every day, because it beats the alternative."
Minnesota got within three points about halfway through the second half, before Michigan finally strung together a couple 3-pointers — first from Aubrey Dawkins, then from Derrick Walton Jr., who may not make all the shots he takes, but he seems to make some big ones.
He took six 3s in the game, and that was the only one he made.
Walton also had a huge driving layup, a scoop shot that he joked was him taking a page out of the Steph Curry playbook.
"I kind of said to (Zak Irvin), I kind of let him down. He was out there shouldering the load in the first half (with 15 points)," Walton said. "I just told him I'll make up for it in the second half.
"It was all about finding a way, just digging deep."
After the big Walton 3, Minnesota missed five of its next shots, and had a costly turnover, as the
Wolverines (14-5, 4-2 Big Ten) were able to survive on a frigid night outside, and a frigid night on offense for both teams.
Michigan made nine of 31 attempts from 3-point range, and the plague was well spread around, even to the sharpest of shooters, Duncan Robinson, who finishing 3-for-10 from long range, bricking as many excellent looks as he had all year.
Overall, Robinson was 3-for-12; some of that was good defense by Charles Buggs; some was simply an off-night shooting.
A couple of Robinson's open misses came back-to-back with about 6 minutes left in the first half, with Michigan up nine and looking like it might put this one in the bank early.
The Wolverines were leading by 15 with 1:56 left in the first half, before Carlos Morris made back-to-back 3s, helping the Gophers close the half on an 8-0 run. Beilein said that was the only time Michigan — which has played a grueling stretch, and only had one day of practice before Minnesota — looked "dead-legged."
"We say we're close," said coach Richard Pitino, whose Minnesota team fell to 6-13, 0-7, with another close loss, following scares of Michigan State and Indiana.
"We wouldn't say that early in the Big Ten season.
"We did a very good job on a very good offensive team."
Irvin was the only Michigan player close to being on his game, as he's been a whole lot lately, finally shaking the after-effects of offseason back surgery. He finished with 19 points to go with 11 rebounds -- for his fourth career double-double.
Walton added 22 points, 11 on free throws of 12 attempts, several late. He also had six rebounds.
As a team, Michigan shot just 36.5 percent, 31 in the second half as Minnesota managed to hang around, despite some awful shooting of its own.
Nate Mason led Minnesota, with 25 points, Morris had 14 and Jordan Murphy 13.
If Minnesota had done a lick of good on offense in the second half, it probably wouldn't still be winless in conference play -- and boasting just one victory, over Chicago State, since November.
Minnesota was 6-of-22 from 3-point range, two of the makes coming in the final 25 seconds as it held out slim hopes of the upset. Michigan focused on shutting down the outside looks, and paid the price at times inside, with some uncontested layups on a night Michigan's big men, including surging Mark Donnal, were just OK.
"We can't take any team lightly; every game in the Big Ten is going to be a dogfight," Irvin said. "I know this wasn't a pretty win for us.
"But I was just proud how we were able to fight and get the win."
If the Wolverines did anything exceptionally, they at least cut down on the turnover issue that plagued them at Iowa, with only six against Minnesota. But they also had only nine assists, an unusually low number, even without star guard Caris LeVert.
LeVert, who continues to make progress with his lower left leg injury, missed his fifth consecutive game.
There's an outside chance he could see some minutes, albeit probably not in a starting capacity, when the Wolverines play Saturday at Nebraska — an opponent that looks a whole lot more difficult, after it beat Michigan State in East Lansing earlier Wednesday night.
Beilein knows Nebraska will be well-educated on Minnesota's defense, quicker than some Michigan has seen, and how it was able to stop a great stable of shooters.
"We're gonna have games where people might expect us to win," Beilein said. "Without LeVert in there, I don't think that should ever be happening."