'We needed that': Patchwork Wolverines KO Cornhuskers, slam brakes on 4-game skid
Lincoln, Neb. — Next man up.
It’s a mantra Michigan coach Juwan Howard has preached all season long and it’s three words the shorthanded Wolverines had to put into effect on Tuesday night.
With senior guard Zavier Simpson back in Ann Arbor and junior forward Isaiah Livers sidelined, Michigan received contributions up and down the roster to pull out a much-needed 79-68 win over Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“It was a huge win for us,” Howard said. “We came here without two of our best players…It’s good to get a road win. Seeing the guys that haven’t had the chance to play like C.J. (Baird) stepping up and giving us some minutes. Adrien Nunez, who hadn’t played in a while, was able to give us a spark.
“I just know that everyone contributed. Franz (Wagner), Jon (Teske), Brandon (Johns Jr.), Eli (Brooks), the list goes on and on. Total team effort.”
Brooks, Johns and Wagner, in particular, answered the bell and combined for 54 points to help Michigan (12-8, 3-6) snap its four-game losing streak and pick up its first true road win of the season.
Brooks finished with 20 points and nine rebounds and Wagner added 18 points and eight rebounds. Johns added a career-high 16 points in place of Livers, who missed his seventh game this season with an injury.
The trio combined to score 31 of Michigan’s 39 points in the second half and came up huge down the stretch, spearheading a 21-4 run over a seven-minute span that put the Wolverines in control.
After Nebraska used an 11-2 spurt to wipe out a seven-point deficit and take a 52-50 lead with 13:49 remaining, Michigan responded with the haymaker — something it had struggled to do in its previous conference road games.
Wagner stuffed Nebraska’s run in its tracks with a 3-pointer to regain the lead, Austin Davis followed with a putback to extend it, and Michigan started to string together defensive stops to pull away.
After sophomore guard Cam Mack made a deep ball for Nebraska’s lone basket during the flurry, Johns countered with a 3-pointer, grabbed aggressive rebounds and threw down a posterizing dunk to key a string of 11 straight points that put Michigan up 69-55 with 6:34 remaining.
"We needed that. A lot of people stepped up,” Wagner said. “I think Brandon was incredible, the offensive rebounds. He dominated, especially in the second half. Maybe he didn't score the most points, but that's stuff to me that wins these type of games where you have to scrap when we have two of our best players down."
Wagner capped the decisive run with a layup to push the lead to 71-56 at the 5:47 mark and the game out of reach. Nebraska tried to make a late push, but it trailed by at least nine points the rest of the way.
Mack finished with 19 points and freshman forward Kevin Cross and senior guard Haanif Cheatham each scored 17 for Nebraska (7-14, 2-8), which lost its sixth straight and missed 15 of its final 20 shots in the game.
“We got the lead in the second half, we were scoring the ball and took the lead, so the energy was much better coming out in the second half,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Then that eight-minute stretch where we weren't getting the same type of possessions that we had the majority of that game, it cost us and it's costing us games. We have these droughts and lulls and that's what is digging the hole and it's hard to keep the energy to get out of that hole and sustain the energy once you get out of it."
In total, eight of the nine Wolverines who took the court scored at least three points, including sophomore guard David DeJulius, who made his first career start with Simpson serving a suspension for violating team policies.
Despite being down two of its top three scorers, the Wolverines shook off a rough 2-for-10 shooting start and received contributions from a variety of sources as Howard mixed and matched with different lineups.
Nunez, who didn’t play the past two games, and Castleton, who played six total minutes over the last three games, were the first two players off the bench. Even Baird, a walk-on forward, saw first-half action after Wagner was in foul trouble and drew two whistles by the 10:50 mark.
During a stretch with Nunez and Castleton were on the floor, the Wolverines made five straight shots with Nunez burying a 3-pointer and Castleton converting back-to-back baskets in the paint for a 25-23 lead at the 8:37 mark.
By the time halftime rolled around, the Wolverines had seven players score and used a balanced effort to grab a 40-35 lead — despite the Cornhuskers shooting 50 percent.
And while Michigan struggled at times with outside shooting (7-for-24 on 3-pointers), sloppy play (17 turnovers) and, for stretches, defense, the Wolverines ultimately found a way to get the job done.
“We did a really good job of staying ready,” Brooks said. “You've got to credit the people like Adrien and Colin who don't really see that many minutes when X and Isaiah are involved.
“You've got to credit the people for staying mentally engaged in the game and that's something that Coach Howard really preaches."