Michigan sputters but wins nonleague finale
Ann Arbor — With Big Ten play fast approaching, Michigan was picking up steam as the nonconference slate wound down.
The offense was humming and the 3-pointers were falling in bunches, while the defense was making strides, holding four of the past five opponents to 55 points or fewer.
But all that momentum nearly unraveled on Thursday as Michigan avoided disaster in its nonconference finale and fended off a furious second-half rally from Furman in a 68-62 win at Crisler Center.
Trailing 63-60 with 1:18 to play, Furman (7-6) had the ball and a chance to tie it but turned it over after John Davis III (10 points) stepped on the baseline with 53.4 seconds left.
Derrick Walton Jr. provided the dagger on the ensuing possession, catching a pass from Zak Irvin and knocking down a 3-pointer from the wing to make it 66-60 with 25 seconds left.
“I just thought it was a big moment,” Walton said of his 3-pointer. “We’re going to work on some things. We didn’t execute our sets as good as we need to and it showed tonight.
“The play was to get Zak coming off something and letting him read whether the guy took me or took the roller. They switched it and the big guarded me, I caught it and I made the shot earlier in the first half, so I knew what I was going to do when I caught it. At that point, it was about making the shot and I’m happy I was able to make it.”
The Wolverines shot 20 percent (4-for-20) from 3-point range, but were 0-for-10 in the second half before Walton made his pivotal basket.
“I knew it really wasn’t going in for us (from beyond the arc),” Irvin said. “(Walton) made a shot like that earlier in the first half and I know especially in crunch time what he’s capable of. I knew right when I passed it to him I started running back because I knew it was good.”
Moritz Wagner scored 18 to lead Michigan (10-3), which won its third straight heading into the Big Ten opener Jan. 1 at Iowa. Irvin added 16 points and seven assists and Walton finished with 13 points, including a pair of free throws in the final seconds to seal it.
After Michigan took a six-point lead into the break, its offense went missing to start the second half while Furman stormed out on an 11-0 run to grab a 36-31 lead with 15:54 remaining.
Davis and Kris Acox started the spurt with back-to-back layups. Devin Sibley (16 points) added a corner 3-pointer and a jumper before Acox finished the flurry with an emphatic dunk.
Michigan, meanwhile, missed its first six shots before D.J. Wilson ended the drought at the 15:29 mark with a layup, starting a string of three straight possessions on which the Wolverines scored.
Duncan Robinson followed with a three-point play and Walton was fouled on an acrobatic, fast-break layup. He hit the free throw to complete the three-point play and put Michigan back on top, 39-38, at the 13:49 mark.
The teams exchanged the lead three times before Michigan rattled off six straight points on a Mark Donnal basket, two Irvin free throws and a Robinson fast-break layup for a 47-42 advantage with 10:30 left.
But Furman wouldn’t go away quietly. It trimmed Michigan’s lead to 55-54 on a Sibley jumper at the 6:08 mark.
Walton countered with a floater off the glass and Irvin knocked down back-to-back jumpers to give Michigan a 63-58 lead with 2:51 to go and setting the stage for the tense finish.
“That was a great challenge for us, to play a smart team,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They play great transition defense, they milk the clock a little bit. … I love our approach to it and frankly we needed something like that.
“We haven’t had that, other than the Texas game, we’ve either been so far ahead or behind in two of the losses that we didn’t have to do that. We didn’t have to learn from that adversity.”
Wagner got off to an impressive start for Michigan, hitting a runner in the lane, a 3-pointer from the wing and a reverse layup as the Wolverines opened a 9-6 lead with 15:52 left in first half.
Furman proved early this was going to be anything but a guarantee game as it countered with a 3-pointer by Geoff Beans and mid-range jumper by Matt Rafferty (12 points) to claim an 11-9 edge a little over a minute later.
The Wolverines used an 8-0 spurt on a Robinson corner 3-pointer, an Irvin mid-range jumper and a Wagner tip-in to take a 23-18 lead at 6:24 mark.
Over the next minute, though, Furman quickly erased the lead before Michigan closed the half with an 8-2 run on four straight points from Irvin — two free throws and a goaltending call — and back-to-back layups by Wagner to take a 31-25 advantage into halftime.
“I think there were some things we left out there execution-wise, but they’re a good team,” Furman coach Niko Medved said. “We had our chances. We just didn’t make quite enough plays, but we were right there.”
Beilein recorded his 750th win and 492nd at the Division I level.
“The last win is the best win, ever,” Beilein said. “Obviously with the holidays coming up and family all being home, it made Christmas much better for the Beileins, without a question.
“I’m happy. It’s better than being whatever it was before this game.”