Michigan coach talks about his team's performance and slow offensive start in Thursday's 68-55 win at Crisler Center. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Penn State has usually given Michigan a tough time in recent years.
Thursday night wasn’t much different.
But much like they have in past encounters, the No. 2 Wolverines were able to create enough separation in the second half and continue their dominance over the Nittany Lions with a 68-55 win at Crisler Center.
Sophomore guard Jordan Poole scored 17 to lead Michigan (14-0, 3-0 Big Ten), which has won eight straight in the series and 13 of the past 14 meetings between the teams.
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis recorded his first career double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds and redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews added 14 points. The duo each picked up the slack with 12 second-half points as the Wolverines were able to get the job done without sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, who didn’t play due to back spasms.
"We were just really focused out there," Brazdeikis said. "I feel like they came out really hungry in the first half and we were, too. But in the second half, we were like, 'Damn, we're the No. 2 team in the nation and we've got to keep proving that. We've got to be the more hungrier team. We've got to be the tougher team out there.'
"I feel like when we all play like we're not No. 2 in the nation, I feel like we play like we are way back there (in the rankings) like we have something to prove every single night, that's why we're so good."
Mike Watkins had 19 points and 12 rebounds and Lamar Stevens had 17 points and 10 rebounds to lead Penn State (7-7, 0-3), which finished 1-for-14 from 3-point range and committed 18 turnovers that led to 20 Michigan points.
The Nittany Lions haven't beaten the Wolverines since Feb. 27, 2013, and haven’t left Ann Arbor victorious since Feb. 20, 2010.
This time Penn State’s downfall started early in the second half, when the Nittany Lions saw a three-point deficit turn into a 17-point hole with 11:07 to go.
Michigan started to turn the close contest into a runaway victory with a 13-3 run. Brazdeikis helped key the spurt with a three-point play and jumper before Matthews capped it with a driving layup to make it 38-25 with 15:25 to play.
The Wolverines then used a string of four straight baskets, highlighted by a 3-pointer from junior guard Zavier Simpson and a three-point play from Brazdeikis, to push the lead to 48-31 with 11:06 to go.
But Penn State clawed back with a 10-1 spurt that featured five straight points by Stevens on a three-point play and jumper to cut it to single digits, 51-43, at the 7:45 mark.
It was the first of three times the Nittany Lions pulled within eight, but each time the Wolverines responded. Poole knocked down a floater twice before Matthews buried a 3-pointer and lost a defender with an up-and-under move to put Michigan on top, 60-47, with 4:42 to go.
"Being able to take it personally when a team scores multiple baskets on you is something that we pride ourselves in. It's just a matter of how we bounce back," Poole said. "Teams are going to go on 8-0 runs, 9-0 runs, especially in the Big Ten. Being able to bounce back and get three straight shutouts or being able to get two steals and transition points to slow the game down a little bit with their momentum is something that's huge."
Penn State made one last push and cut it to nine on an and-1 layup by Stevens, but Brazdeikis provided the dagger with a 3-pointer in the corner to make it a 12-point game with 1:57 remaining.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said he thought about fouling early to make Michigan close it out at the free-throw line, but that didn't end up happening.
"We came into our huddles like, 'Should we start fouling now? Is now the time?' " Chambers said. "We tried to blitz them at the end there and they got the ball out the blitz. They made a nice read and made a nice play, and if we had to foul there I would've been fine with it. But they got rid of ball pretty quickly. That was a big-time shot by that freshman."
Michigan was able to salt it away as junior center Jon Teske, Poole, Matthews and Simpson combined to make five free throws over the final 1:34 to seal it.
With Thursday's game marking the restart of Big Ten play, Michigan and Penn State spent the first seven minutes of the game feeling one another out in what turned out to be a defensive grind. The teams combined for 13 points and nine turnovers while each started 3-for-10 from the field.
For Michigan, the slow start had to do with Penn State's scrappy man defense, something the Wolverines hadn't seen in weeks after facing an array of funky zones to close out the nonconference schedule.
Poole helped provide a jolt and inject some life into Michigan’s offense by sparking a 14-3 run that featured a string of impressive plays.
First, redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis fed Brazdeikis with a wraparound feed under the rim for an uncontested layup. Then after Poole buried a step-back 3-pointer, he dished out a behind-the-back bounce pass to Davis for a dunk as the Wolverines ripped off nine straight points within a two-minute span.
Poole capped the spurt with five straight points — three free throws after drawing a foul on a 3-point shot and a mid-range jumper — to give Michigan a 20-10 lead with 7:46 left in the first half.
But a bad stretch that featured a whiffed dunk by Teske, a turnover by Poole that led to a fast-break dunk and a 6-minute field-goal drought allowed Penn State to pull within two before the Wolverines held a 25-20 edge at the break.
"Penn State gives you defensive challenges that are tough for our team as we try to find out who we really are in different situations," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "First half was not a great half. We took some questionable shots and their length bothered us.
"I know there are some great teams in the country that are blowing people out of the water. We've been able to do that on a couple occasions, but that generally isn't who we are. You don't blow teams out of the water with defense. It's a gradual process while you feel out the offense. You're up by two, then you're up six, then you're up eight, then you're up by 16. That's who were are. We've just got to grind our way through."