UM starts fast, holds off Nebraska for big road victory

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Lincoln, Neb. — Michigan can sympathize with all those East Coasters buried under multiple feet of snow.

The Wolverines have been buried, early, too often in games on the road this season.

Not Saturday. That's when things changed, and the result was predictably positive for Michigan — an 81-68 victory over a scorching-hot Nebraska at a packed Pinnacle Bank Arena.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 81, Nebraska 68

Michigan, which played from way too far behind early in road losses to SMU and Iowa, came out of both halves on fire Saturday, and while Nebraska fought till almost the end, it was too much.

"They got nine possessions to start the game and get 18 points. Now, just remember this: Our goal is less than one point per possession," Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. "We need 10 straight stops to get back under one point per possession. Second half, it's nine possessions, 21 points. Now you need 13 straight stops.

"You're not going to get 23 straight stops against Michigan."

Michigan (15-5, 5-2 Big Ten) opened the second half on a 21-6 run, allowing the Wolverines to withstand several runs by the Cornhuskers (12-9, 4-4), who came into the game having won four games in a row, including a game earlier in the week against Michigan State.

Zak Irvin had a great start to the second half, after a brutal first half, and Derrick Walton Jr. had a huge game, particularly late, finishing with 19 points (on 5-of-8 shooting), 12 rebounds (10 in the second half) and six assists.

That was enough to hold off several runs by Nebraska, including a 10-0 spurt midway through the second half that was aided by two Michigan turnovers, one by Walton and another by Moritz Wagner, who seemed almost like he was trying to run the point before throwing it away.

That made it an eight-point game, before Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman stopped the bleeding, getting fouled — allegedly; there were several questionable calls in this one – on a 3-pointer. He made all three free throws.

A minute later, Walton made a 3 from the top of the key to push the lead back to 12.

"We just had the mind0set, when we got off the bus, we're down 10. Have the mind-set to stay connected," Irvin said of getting off to a good start on the road. "That was the key and why we were able to win this game."

The early-half surges took their toll on Nebraska, which, at times, felt like it had to make 3s to get back in this one — and that didn't go well, as the Cornhuskers were 6-of-22 (27.3 percent).

Nebraska had its success when it went inside, and that message got across too late in the second half. Miles knew his team was in trouble when he was forced to call a timeout inside the first minute of the second half.

Still, Nebraska continued to battle, cutting it to two, 66-64, after a Walton turnover.

Then, Walton was fouled — and made them both, staying in the present.

"Those babies hit nothing but the bottom of the net," Beilein said. "That shows you another step in him being a leader on this team."

The next possession probably put this one away.

Abdur-Rahkman, playing with four fouls, found Duncan Robinson on a cut to the basket, and Robinson threw down a slam — and added a little hang time on the rim and a scream, not at all pleasing to the red-clad crowd of 15,745.

Robinson finished with a team-high 21 points, with only three 3-pointers.

There's more growth, Beilein said.

"Two guys that have never played together, didn't even know each other last year," Beilein said of Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, raving about that connection. "Now they're responding in that great atmosphere.

"They're not relying on the coach to draw something up. That's huge for us."

Michigan was golden from the free-throw line down the stretch to ice it, making all 13 attempts in the second half. That included all 10 in the final three minutes.

Michigan opened the first half on fire, too, leading, 18-6, five minutes in.

Nebraska closed the first half strong, cutting it to 33-30 on a buzzer-beating 3 by freshman Glynn Watson Jr. — after Michigan, with fouls to give, had left Nebraska less than 5 seconds to get its shot off.

Michigan knows all about being resilient in the face of a big deficit. The Wolverines, after all, were able to hang around despite early deficits to Purdue and Iowa. But both road games ended in a loss

"What I love about it is we withstood the charge at the end of the first half, a couple charges during the second half," Beilein said. "I'm really proud of the way these kids responded."

Mark Donnal, despite a foul in the first minute that sent him to the bench briefly, had another big Big Ten game, with 14 points. He had some key baskets on cuts to the basket during the second half, including two on consecutive possessions, with the latter eliciting a rather loud groan from the crowd. He made six free throws.

Irvin had eight points and five assists, all of those assists coming in the second half. Abdur-Rahknan scored eight.

Watson and Andrew White III scored 15 each for Nebraska, while Shavon Shields — who scored a season-high 28 in the win over Michigan State — was limited to 11. He missed three critical free throws in the second half.

Michigan shot 68.2 percent in the second half, and won the rebounding battle, 32-24.

"From the jump ball, introductions, we knew it was going to be really loud," said Walton, whose Wolverines return to action Wednesday at home against Big Ten bottom-feeder Rutgers. "We did a really good job on the court of really communicating with each other, talking about how we were gonna stay together.

"Teams are gonna make runs. I'm just proud we made some big plays when we needed to."